by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by detonate
There was a demon at the end of the table, sitting upright like a man, hands folded atop the polished wood, wearing a storm-grey uniform with shoulder patches and bars that no doubt indicated rank to those that could read the language of insignia, skin sickly pale, easily half a head taller than anyone else around it; and its strange yellow eyes fixed on Tenzjin the moment he walked into the room.
The other men around the table couldn’t see it for what it was, apparently, because they talked to one another and shuffled through papers in front of them as though there might be a demon in the boardroom every day. A petite young woman came in with a tray of coffee cups and a single bottle of water; she set the bottle in front of it, and it gave her a smile that showed none of the teeth Tenzjin knew were hiding behind its lips. When it turned back, it kept its eyes downcast, staring at the empty conference table before it as though some secret might be trapped in the mirror-shined black oak surface. He could almost see it licking its chops.
The woman sat a green clay cup in front of him, and a floral scent lifted on the steam that rose from its surface. “Heard your people like tea,” said Aziiri, though it still took Tenzjin a moment to process the statement. Though he’d studied the language for many years, books had been his main source of information, supplemented by infrequent help provided by tutors who’d spent time on the mainland. The gentle, exotic trills and exhalations from the lips of his countrymen were proven harsh and gutteral in the mouths of native speakers, and though Tenzjin knew all the words, it was still often an effort to convince his brain that what he was hearing was indeed language. The liquid contained in that cup looked to be tea only by the loosest definition of the word, but Tenzjin sat without confirming or denying Aziiri’s comment and pressed his palm against the warm, handle-less mug. He raised it to his mouth one-handed, in the still-unfamiliar way he saw the other men at the table drink their coffee, and tried not to make a face at how bitter it was; from the lingering aftertaste, he surmised that this might be the first time something other than coffee had ever been served from this particular cup. It was bad, but he drank it, because he wouldn’t let them see him complain about their foul beverages, or their ridiculous suits, or their uncomfortable chairs, to say nothing of the matter of the demon that had come to kill him.
It had, too, he was certain of that, and it surprised him a little how calm he could remain about it. His lord father, whose head he’d last seen rotting on a pike, had thought very little of Tenzjin’s atheist tendencies; that a son of his, even just his third son, might blaspheme the gods of his ancestors by dismissing them as ‘mere superstition’ had nearly been grounds for disowning Tenzjin entirely. But the mainland had come and the gods had not protected them, and Tenzjin had taken this as something of a vindication of his skepticism, and thus he had been more than comfortable in his wholesale rejection of the supernatural right up until he’d walked into the room and seen his death looking up at him with narrow yellow eyes.
“Well, shall we get things underway?” asked Sharni, clapping his fat hands together with a heavy slap that quieted the room. The demon lifted its head, and the expression on its face was a little lost, like that of a child caught daydreaming; it gave a sheepish smile and straightened its shoulders into a more military bearing, though it had nothing of the effortless sternness of the two similarly uniformed men to its right. “I’ve got another meeting at ten today, so I promise this won’t take long.” Tenzjin had to strain to understand every word through the CEO’s particularly mumbled speech.
Satisfied he had an audience, Sharni settled into his seat at the head of the table and took a deep drink from his own gold-rimmed cup, which bore on the outward-facing side the company logo. “Before we begin, you all may have noticed a new face with us this morning.” With that, Tenzjin could feel every eye in the room bearing down on him. “This gentleman here is Tenzjin,” he said, both murdering the vowels in Tenzjin’s given name and eliminating the family and tribal designations that preceded it, as had long been the mainland fashion, “who comes to us along with our recent … acquisition.” A murmur of amusement bubbled through the room, and Tenzjin forced his face into a compliant smile against the curious stares, most of which he had no doubt searched him thoroughly before coming to fixate on the dark patch over his right eye. Let them look, he reasoned; it wasn’t as though it were a fashion statement. “He’ll be advising us on matters of culture and assimilation, and starting soon will be training his own internal security division.”
This of course was news to no one, as Tenzjin had already been living in the capital for nearly a month, reporting to various divisions and offices every day as the great corporate-military bureaucracy found a place for him in its vast entrails. But they gave him a quiet round of welcoming applause, and he did not rise to bow, but sat and nodded his thanks. “You of course know Aziiri,” said Sharni, gesturing to the slim older head of internal security who’d been Tenzjin’s primary liason since he’d arrived. “And this is Bassa, head of Weapons Development; Dr. Qama, our chief researcher; Generals Imrai, Yahyi, and Mot, respectively….”
The introductions went on, but Tenzjin got no further. The demon had a name. He nodded and smiled at each person Sharni indicated, then tried to pay attention as the meeting went on and various departments reported in, but his focus kept shifting back to Mot, who looked at him with no particular emotion save the natural curiosity of new acquaintances. He wanted to pound on the table, to jump up in the middle of the speech and shout at everyone, how do you not see the monster among you? But he kept his hands folded and his mouth shut as various heads reported in from various departments as though nothing might be even slightly south of normal, and presently the meeting was done.
As Sharni excused himself off toward whatever engagement demanded his fuller attention, leaving the core staff to return to the business of ruling the company (and, by proxy, the country), Tenzjin pushed back from the table and stood. Aziiri rose with him and placed a hand on his shoulder, affording Tenzjin as much personal space as mainlanders ever did. “I need to speak with the folks from Weapons, so are you all right finding your way back on your own?”
“Fine, yes.” Tenzjin nodded and waited as long as politeness dictated before he stepped beyond arm’s reach, aiming for the door. “Thank you.”
He’d nearly made his escape unnoticed, past the corporate and military men engaged in their own conversations, before he heard a voice from behind him greet him in a language he hadn’t heard spoken in several weeks: “Ten thousand greetings, old friend.”
The sound pierced his ears in the manner a needle made of ice might, and he wheeled around on the heel of his strange metal-toed boots and came face-to-face with the demon. Tenzjin was a tall man even by mainlander standards, but Mot loomed over him, stern and chiseled from stone from the neck down, yet wearing a nervous smile. “That’s … most of what I know how to say,” Mot apologized, sticking his hands in his trouser pockets in a way that struck Tenzjin as distinctly un-military. “We were only taught basic greetings and communication.”
The irony of learning a people’s language in order to facilitate conquering them — to say nothing of using that language to greet a defector who’d done well for himself by selling out said people — was either lost on or darkly funny to the demon. “Thank you,” said Tenzjin, sticking to the room’s more common language. “And you.”
“It does mean ‘hello’, right?” Mot laughed a little, looking down toward his feet. “I wouldn’t want to think I’ve been saying the wrong thing all this time.”
“It … yes.” Tenzjin nodded. “And you will excuse me?”
“Of course.” Mot nodded, moving aside, and Tenzjin had never been so proud of himself in all his life as he was when he made his way out of the room, down the hallway, and into the elevator shaft without so much as missing a step. His hand trembled as he lifted it to press the buttons, though, and instead of hitting the button for 67, which would have taken him to his new suite of offices, he pressed the one labeled 39 and leaned back against the car’s brass railing as the elevator started to fall. His only clue that it was moving at all was a slight sinking sensation in his stomach, which he was determined to blame entirely on the descent and not on anything else.
The elevator opened onto an empty corridor that led right to four living areas and left to another four. Tenzjin walked to the leftmost door and placed his hand over the scanner; after a moment, the security system beeped and the door slid open. He stepped inside and stood still until it hissed shut again, and that was it: he fell to his knees where he stood, then pitched forward, wrapping his arms around his waist, pressing his forehead to the floor. He stayed there for several minutes, forcing all his attention to the act of breathing, until he felt he had things under control. One of the few furnished parts of his otherwise empty apartment was a stocked wet bar, so he willed himself to his feet and went over, still clumsy with his new monocular vision, to pour himself a too-large glass of whisky, which he drank too fast anyway. His brothers would have laughed at him for drinking like that, and at such an early hour of the day, but their heads had been perched atop the pikes next to his father’s, and all five of them had watched him leave the capital city with their sightless eyes.
As the whisky burned the back of his back of his throat, he could finally start to convince himself that it had been nothing more than his imagination that had spooked him in the boardroom. Mot was an unusual-looking man, to be sure, but Tenzjin had seen many unusual things since he’d come to the mainland, and none of them had turned out to be inexplicable. There were things that looked like the creatures the superstitious called demons, in the way children saw animals in summer clouds, but there were no demons; there were human vendettas and sworn vengeance, but there were no such things as curses. There was a rational explanation for everything in the world.
Yet Tenzjin could not banish the memory of his maternal grandfather’s voice, telling him and his brothers scary tales long past their bedtimes (to his mother’s eternal displeasure). Even at the time, Tenzjin hadn’t paid attention more than for the novelty value, and certainly had never been the one checking in closets or sprinting through dark rooms, afraid of what might lurk unseen. There were monsters in the world, the old man had promised, casting shadows on the wall with his gnarled hands, that came for those who had betrayed their own blood, who sought the traitors out with sharp teeth and yellow eyes; their tales were half-recorded in many annals, but only ever half, because few and far between were those unlucky enough to see them and live to tell the tale.
He wished he had his mother’s library with him, that it had not gone up in smoke with her inside of it, but some wishes were light years away from possibility, and he knew better than to dwell on them. Doing so was even less rational than believing in demons.
He did not see Mot again for nearly three months, which was nearly long enough for Tenzjin to convince himself that he had fabricated the entire event from too many worries and too little sleep. And then one day Mot was there in the gym, dressed in only a pair of light pants, with a butterfly bandage at the outside edge of his eyebrow and a stiffness to his right knee.
The three-month gap hadn’t been enough to convince Tenzjin that Mot himself wasn’t real; quite the contrary, Mot was an unavoidable topic, especially as Tenzjin read about the war from the mainland’s point of view: the special forces operative who’d single-handedly pulled off some of the most daring later-declassified maneuvers in recent memory, whose bravery and tactical skills pushed him quickly through the ranks until, at the tender age of twenty-two, he’d become the youngest general in the company’s history. Several accounts mentioned his unusual appearance in passing, enough that Tenzjin could feel certain he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed, and in every photograph of him, Mot stood at least a head over the other mainlanders, all of whom had skin only a little darker than Tenzjin’s and hair just as black. No media source speculated even for a moment as to the origin of his unique features, nor did any give a biography of him that stretched back to more than a few months before the war.
The hour was late, enough so that a person might reasonably have assumed the facility empty. Tenzjin, however, had never slept much, and as such took advantage of the always-open facilities at odd hours. He’d made acquaintances aplenty in the months since arriving, but no friends, and found the company’s expansive gymnasium more welcoming than his own silent apartment, which felt roomy enough for ten men, and which he had felt no incentive to furnish in either mainland or island style. He’d just finished up a lengthy swim — an activity he enjoyed primarily because no one ever tried to converse with him during it — and had been on his way to the mirrored training room when he’d been surprised to find it not as empty as he’d anticipated.
Instead, he saw Mot, his amazing hair even wilder for its being soaked with sweat, standing in front of the mirrors with his palms pressed together in front of his face. Mot took a deep breath, then punched at some invisible enemy to his right. He let out first one deep cry as he did so, and then others as he punched again and again, travelling across the floor with each step, releasing fierce bursts of energy that disappeared into the air. Tenzjin wasn’t surprised to see Mot’s eyes remain shut through this assault; he could do it with both eyes closed, and had many times growing up, under the stern eye of his fighting master, until he’d gotten it right. This was a bare-handed fighting style particular to the island, and here was Mot, who had — so far as Tenzjin could tell — never set foot on the island except to lead the months-long invasion and conquest, executing it as perfectly as Tenzjin had ever seen.
Mot’s last blow startled his eyes open, however, because it met not with the air, but with Tenzjin’s open palm. His jaw dropped open and he staggered back a few steps, all the grace in his long muscles scattered. “I’m sorry!” Mot raised both his hands, palms open and fingers splayed, in no position to strike again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you–”
He was barely five years younger than Tenzjin, but the gap between them seemed more appropriately measured in decades. “No, no,” said Tenzjin, shaking his head. His pool-wet hair was drawn back into a short ponytail at the nape of his neck, and he reached back to tighten the cord that held it in place; he hadn’t been expecting anyone, so he hadn’t taken pains to cover his ruined eye, and felt self-conscious for having it seen like that. “I should not step in.”
“Oh! No.” Mot stepped back with the same nervous stagger. “No, I was just … I was about to leave, I didn’t know anyone else was here….”
That seemed a fitting end to the encounter, and Tenzjin wanted to leave it there, to let them both go their separate ways and not prolong the moment between two people who had justifiable reasons to feel awkward around one another above and beyond how one of them might once have entertained the absurd notion that the other was an impossible supernatural creature. Instead, he found himself speaking again: “Where did you learn?”
Mot frowned for a moment, and he looked down at his bare feet. “‘When I was younger. Here. I had a teacher who was an islander.”
There it was: the rational explanation Tenzjin had known would exist. The centuries-long tension between island and mainland had not stopped the inhabitants of one from crossing over to the other, particularly in the cases of islanders drawn by the promises of technology and modernity. “He taught well,” said Tenzjin, stepping forward, his bare feet padding cat-like across the sprung floor.
“I can’t say,” laughed Mot, scratching at the back of his neck. He had a lovely voice, a light tenor, and though Tenzjin had become exponentially more comfortable with the mainland language since his arrival, he realized he had less trouble understanding Mot’s curious accent and strange vowels than he did anyone else’s. “I’ve used it, when I had to, but I’ve never actually seen anyone but my teacher fight like that–”
Later Tenzjin would blame his ego for what followed, or at least for what started what followed, and would fault himself for showing his hand so easily. At the time, though, all he could think was that this was his, something he’d trained for years to perfect, not something he’d picked up piecemeal from an expatriate looking to make a living off the skills of his ancestors — and he was damned if he was going to let someone else seem, even for a moment, to be better at it. With a cry like Mot’s, he darted forward, punching the air between them with a deliberate feint, then using his momentum to swing around a kick at the height of Mot’s head.
To his credit, Mot didn’t hesitate for more than a moment, and by the time Tenzjin’s foot reached its intended altitude, Mot’s face was no longer there. Instead, he dropped into a crouch far faster and lower than Tenzjin would have expected someone of his size to be able to accomplish, and when Tenzjin’s leg was over him, he sprang back up, slamming his palms into the underside of Tenzjin’s thigh and tossing him backward.
Tenzjin took the borrowed momentum and changed it into a full flip, landing on the balls of his feet and coming up swinging. Too aggressive! his teacher would have said, but his teacher was dead now and Tenzjin was here, so the art of patient defense obviously had its shortcomings as well. Muscles warm and loose from his long swim, he grinned at the first live opponent he’d had in months — to say nothing of the first opponent ever he’d had to face half-blinded. That first attack had been light, a master’s training strike; he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Mot, for his own part, seemed to have no interest in merely standing back and fending off attacks, and came forth into the fray as fully as Tenzjin himself did. He was as strong as he looked, and Tenjin’s forearms and shins stung with the force of blocking his blows; he used his hands more where Tenzjin relied more heavily on his feet, but wasn’t afraid to get off a good kick with his long legs when the opportunity presented itself. Mot shouldn’t have been able to move that fast, Tenzjin knew, but no one had apparently informed Mot of this, because moves that should have taken full seconds to prepare and execute happened in half that time. The few times Tenzjin managed to get past Mot’s defenses and strike his chest, it was like hitting brick, and Mot seemed no worse for the impact — in fact, the few times Tenzjin allowed himself to look clearly at his opponent, he saw that, damn him, Mot was grinning.
At last, Tenzjin got a sweeping kick off, and for a moment he saw Mot’s right knee buckle, the same one that had seemed so stiff when he’d been practicing alone earlier. Pehaps it was a bit of cheating to take advantage of an opponent’s old injury in a sparring match, but Tenzjin wasn’t about to lose this, not to a rank amateur barbarian who worked for the same kind of monsters that Tenzjin had let himself associate with. He feinted high and came down low instead, and this time when Tenzjin’s foot connected with the side of Mot’s knee, Mot let out a sharp cry and fell.
That at least was expected; what Tenzjin hadn’t seen coming was how the moment Mot hit the ground, he spun on his back and took out both of Tenzjin’s ankles with a swing of his injured leg. Caught too off-guard to recover gracefully, Tenzjin toppled backward the floor, and almost before he’d registered the pain of the impact, Mot was on top of him, pinning down Tenzjin’s thighs with his knees and looming over his chest.
Had he been thinking clearly about their circumstances and location, Tenzjin would not have kissed Mot, but he was exhausted and rattled from the fall and hard from the battle and furious about the whole situation, so he pushed himself up on one elbow and mashed their mouths together in something that was even more feral than a kiss, something made of teeth and sweat. He fisted a hand into Mot’s hair — which had looked coarse from a distance, but which he could tell now was fine, baby-fine — and held him in place. He could feel in the way Mot’s body tensed that he hadn’t expected this, and that moment of surprise was all it took to disrupt Mot’s hold enough so that Tenzjin could flip them until their positions were reversed. Now he was in control.
Now on top, Tenzjin could feel Mot’s erection press against his thigh, as hard and enormous as the rest of him. If kissing him had been a bad idea, this surely was worse, but Tenzjin realized he simply didn’t care — weaknesses were fair game, and he wasn’t about to lose this either. Grabbing at Mot’s lower lip with his teeth, Tenzjin grabbed both of Mot’s wrists with one hand and shoved the other down the front of Mot’s light pants. Mot gasped into the kiss and arched his back against the touch, and now it was Tenzjin’s turn to grin.
Against all odds, the hardness in Mot’s pants had room to grow, and did so as Tenzjin stroked it, until he was certain what he held might have been too big for two hands. He twisted his sweat-slick palm none too gently around its head and Mot gave a whimper, straining against his bonds without actually putting forth the force needed to free himself. Just a man, then, and Tenzjin never knew how he could have thought otherwise; surely no demon, fictional or not, would allow itself to be dominated like this, to express such vulnerability. Mot’s eyes were closed now, and he was panting for it, begging for it without even having to say anything, having by the very act of submitting admitted that he needed what Tenzjin was offering. While Tenzjin’s grandfather’s stories had been lacking in all except the vaguest sexual content, Tenzjin was quite certain that none of the supernatural beings in them would have let themselves be put in positions like this one. Not a demon, then. Only a fool could have had that thought in the first place, and only a greater fool would perseverate on its possibility.
What was real was the feel of Mot’s cock, how it jerked and pulsed beneath his touch, and that was monstrous for its own reasons. After barely a minute of this onslaught, Mot jerked and gave a languageless cry, and he came all over Tenzjin’s hand and his own belly, adding his seed to their already sweat-slicked connection. Tenzjin pressed his mouth hard against Mot’s, swallowing the sound into another fierce kiss, one whose intensity slowed as Mot himself relaxed, until Mot’s great prick was soft in Tenzjin’s hand and they were only kissing, not fighting anymore. Mot tasted like sweat and deep earth, and when his tongue flicked across Tenzjin’s lower lip, Tenzjin could feel the place where Mot’s clever little teeth must have cut him. At the time, he hadn’t noticed.
At long last, Tenzjin pulled away and stood, straightening himself as best he could; he was still hard, and his cock rose in a clear outline beneath his light pants, and he enjoyed the way Mot’s sleepy, satisfied gaze lingered on it. “Want more?” he asked with a smug look, and he was gratified when Mot’s head nodded in a little unconscious yes. Demons didn’t give themselves away like that. “Come find where I live.” Without waiting for a response, he retreated to the locker room to retrieve his bag, leaving Mot still sprawled and debauched on the training room floor, and made a hasty exit back to his apartment.
There, he jerked off twice in the shower, something he hadn’t done since his teenage years, and both times as he came, he ran his tongue over the cut on his lip, tasting blood.
He followed reconstruction on the island mostly abstractly, and entirely through the mainland media. The few towns that had suffered the most collateral damage during to the fighting now looked much as they had before, only with new corporate logos on everything to let the islanders know to whom they should be grateful. More comprehensive accounts of the invasion were quick to note that strategic defection from internal elements had kept the casualties in the walled capital city to a minimum, though none identified — or even likely knew — that the internal element in question was currently occupying a rather generous suite in the west tower’s residential floors.
Tenzjin had thought he might have nightmares — it seemed the noble thing to do, to express whatever regrets he might have in such an inescapable subconscious way — but he hadn’t had trouble drifting off a single night since his last on the island, and his sleep had been dreamless. Had anyone asked, he would have told them that he felt nostalgia when he thought about his homeland, perhaps even a touch of homesickness, but no guilt. But no one asked.
He was home by himself that evening, reclining on his couch with a heavy book across his lap, expecting no one, when the chime to his front door rang. Though rare, this was hardly an inexplicable event; couriers moved at all hours in this great sleepless mainland city, bringing him what tools of his job could not be delivered electronically, and Aziiri himself had dropped in a few times to see how his curious new employee was getting on. (Tenzjin had no illusions that Aziiri might have asked to supervise the company’s new pet islander, but the man had never once been less than warmly courteous to his new employee, which Tenzjin found admirable dedication to duty.) “Coming,” he called out, though he had no idea how well sound travelled through the building’s heavy walls. He set the book aside, straightened his robe, checked to make sure that the knife in his sleeve was both sheathed and concealed, and tapped the panel to open the door.
On the other side stood Mot, dressed in civilian clothes and smelling a bit as though he’d just come up from the gym with only a brief shower in-between. He stuck both his hands into the front pocket of his sweatshirt, crossing them across his belly, and bit his lip as he smiled sweetly. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Tenzjin echoed. Well, he had offered, though in the six weeks since he’d done so, he’d begun to suspect neither of them had taken it seriously. In fact, he’d almost begun to regard the entire incident in the gym as something of a waking dream, perhaps a vivid hallucination born of insomnia and anxiety. And there was no reason to believe that Mot might not be here on business, or to deliver an item, or for any other of the million reasons he could imagine.
He knew he should wait until Mot identified the reason for his visit; he knew he should already have his hand on his blade. Instead, he stepped back from the door, and Mot stepped forward to fill the space. He stood there for a moment, ramrod-still, long enough that the door’s automatic sensors decided all comings and goings had ceased. The hiss it made as it closed faded, leaving a heavy silence in its place. “If this is a bad time….”
“Shoes.” Tenzjin pointed to a rack by the door where all his own footwear stood in neat pairs, toes pointed away from the wall. Mot blinked for a moment, then let out a quiet oh of understanding and slipped off his own sneakers and socks, until they both stood barefoot on Tenzjin’s plush carpet. “Welcome to my home.”
“It’s very….” Returning his hands to his sweatshirt pocket, Mot looked around with open admiration. “It’s nice. You have a nice place. Very neat.”
This was what it was going to be, then: a friendly call, one that ignored the part where the guest was uninvited and the host had molested him in semi-public a month and a half previous. (And then there was of course the issue of the guest’s being a demon, or so said the ridiculous thoughts Tenzjin couldn’t quite keep from floating to the surface of his mind.) “I have not had much time for decorating,” Tenzjin said, half modesty and half apology.
“No, I like it, it’s very….” Mot trailed off again, and he rocked a little on the balls of his feet, a mannerism that made him seem even younger than he had in the gym. “If I’m disturbing anything–”
“Would you like a drink?” Tenzjin turned his back on Mot (realizing only after he did it than he shouldn’t have, except that was ridiculous) and headed over to the wet bar that extended into the half-wall separating the apartment’s kitchen from the living space. Just because he hadn’t done any entertaining since moving to the mainland didn’t mean that he’d forgotten how.
“Oh, no, I don’t. Drink, I don’t drink. Thank you.”
Tenzjin took a single glass from a rack by his knee and pulled the stopper from a crystal decanter. “Then I–”
“Actually.” Mot cleared his throat and stepped closer, staring at his feet. “I can’t drink. It’s … sort of an allergy.”
“An allergy?” This was the first Tenzjin had heard of it; none of the reading material he’d found about Mot had mentioned anything like that. Then again, Tenzjin’s research into the matter hadn’t turned up much on his guest, and he hardly had authorization or reasonable cause to dig deeper into the company’s records.
Mot nodded and scratched at the back of his head, sending his amazing wild hair sticking straight up. “I … had some medical procedures done when I was younger. A lot of them, most when I was too young to remember. They altered my body chemistry, my skin, my hair. And they left me with some … sensitivities.” He withdrew his left hand, pulling back the sleeve of his sweatshirt in the process; a dark grey metal cuff stamped with the mainland’s cramped cursive lettering encircled his thick wrist. “Most stimulants and depressants. Caffeine. Nicotine. Alcohol.”
Tenzjin frowned. “Is it serious?”
“Oh, yes.” Mot gave a grim little laugh. “Life-threatening, actually. I’ve been hospitalized. Hence the medical alert bracelet.”
Tenzjin’s fingers traced the circular rim of his glass. An unwise move, revealing a weakness to a stranger. “If you would like, I have some water instead.”
Mot shrugged as he came closer, swallowing the distance between them in each of his long, slow strides. He was so graceful when he moved, in a way that his size should have prevented him from being; yet every motion was liquid, smoothing awkwardness into beauty. “No, it’s more sensitive than that. More….” He took the heavy crystal stopper from Tenzjin’s fingers and set it back in place. “About contact.”
“Contact,” Tenzjin repeated, weighing it on his tongue. He’d always had something of an ear for languages, but the mainland speech was complicated, full of homophones and idioms that often left him at a loss for meaning, and he wanted to be sure about this.
“If that,” Mot tapped the heavy crystal, sending ripples through the amber liquid inside, “were on your mouth, even on your breath….”
“If…?” Tenzjin had no trouble following Mot’s line of thought; the victory here would be to get Mot to say it.
With a quiet, self-conscious laugh, Mot let his chin drop, until his face was curtained around the edges by the longer strands of his hair. “Then I might not be able to do what I want to do.”
Tenzjin took a step closer, until they were half an arm’s reach apart. “And what is that?” He let his voice drop into his lower register, until each word was heavy with breath. It felt good like this, to be on his home territory, to have some margin of control after having been battered for months on the seas of forces far mightier than he, to have the demon (not a demon, stop thinking that) come to him to beg for something.
“I….” Mot laughed again, though there was no confidence behind the sound. “I’ve never done … what we did … with anyone. Before that. And I wanted … it again.”
Two critical admissions in barely a minute’s time: his allergy and — the more surprising — his virginity. Either Mot was a complete idiot or he’d found some element in Tenzjin that he’d deemed worthy of trust, and either way, Tenzjin figured, he was a fool. “Again?”
Mot shrugged, his gaze still downcast, staring somewhere around their bare feet. “Except this time, I thought we … might both. Or at least just let it be your turn. So I could … show my gratitude.”
Tenzjin tugged at the front of Mot’s sweatshirt. “Take it off.”
To his credit, Mot hesitated only a moment before reaching for the hem of the shirt and peeling it up over his head, revealing his lean, muscled chest; he faltered for a minute, holding it in his hands and looking about, before balling it into a small pile and placing it on the marble countertop. He looked back at Tenzjin, who glanced pointedly at Mot’s pants, and with even less hesitation Mot slid them and the underwear beneath to the floor. He stepped out of them and stood before Tenzjin, completely naked, beautiful, and ferociously hard.
It had been difficult in the gym for Tenzjin to form a full appreciation of Mot — the circumstances had been less than ideal for quiet reflection, to say the least — but here, Tenzjin could step back and appreciate what he’d drawn to his door, and so he did. Mot was perfect to a ridiculous degree, each muscle distinct beneath his ash-pale skin; he bore a few scars, the most prominent a white lightning strike that ran down the outside of his right knee, but they only joined the overall effect. His cock, now that Tenzjin could see it, was indeed as large as it had felt at the time, darker than the rest of him and standing proud against his belly, pointing upward to his navel. On either side of it, his large, knobby hands hung by his thighs, clenching every so often as though he were warding off stiffness. He held the fierce posture of military training, shoulders square, jaw set, ready to be commanded.
Tenzjin reached out and placed a hand in the center of Mot’s smooth, bare chest, smiling as he heard Mot’s breath catch. “If I take you to bed,” he said, looking not at Mot’s face but at his impressive pectoral muscles, “I will fuck you. I will ride you. This is how you want me?”
The small ripple of anxiety that ran across Mot’s features was no match for the rigidness that held every other part of his body in check. Instead of speaking, he swallowed once and nodded.
“Want me inside you?” Tenzjin grinned and stepped closer, letting his own robe fall apart until their bare chests met; his hand trailed lower until his fingertips brushed the head of Mot’s cock, feeling with great satisfaction the slickness waiting there. “Want me holding you down?” His fingertips slid down the length of Mot’s shaft, making Mot gasp. “Want me to take you so–”
So you can’t say no, Tenzjin had waiting on his lips, but he never got there, interrupted as he was by the jerk of Mot’s body as it pitched forward and the feel of ropes of warm, wet come from the tip of Mot’s cock. Hands still at his sides, Mot caught himself from falling by bending forward and pressing his lips to the side of Tenzjin’s bared neck as he came. The mess was considerable — Tenzjin’s hand was soaked, and as he looked down into the space between their bodies, he could see both his robes and Mot’s bare body were slick. In Tenzjin’s hand, Mot’s cock flagged slightly, but showed no signs of returning to soft just yet.
Tenzjin froze for a moment, caught by how unexpected the experience had been — and then laughed, something which he could feel did nothing to relieve the tension in Mot’s body. “Oh,” he said, bringing up his dripping hand for contemplation, “you do want that.”
“I’m sorry,” Mot muttered, pressing his burning cheek to Tenzjin’s skin. “I’m sorry, I–”
“Shh.” Tenzjin pressed his wet fingers to Mot’s mouth, first to shush him, then on past his lips to where he could feel Mot’s sharp (but human, perfectly normal) teeth and his tongue beyond. “Save your mouth for something useful.”
The only companions Tenzjin had invited into his room since his arrival had been both paid for and female, and thus he was more than adequately supplied for the task at hand. In what seemed like no time, they were both naked, Tenzjin’s robe discarded in the doorway to the bedroom (the knife still undiscovered and sheathed in its sleeve), discarded condom wrapper and half-empty lubricant bottle on the sheets beside them. Mot wound up on all fours, braced on his elbows and knees, with Tenzjin bent over him, grabbing at his lovely hips, fucking him far harder than he ever should have treated a virgin. He didn’t care; he was just giving Mot what he’d asked for.
Mot came twice more before Tenzjin did, both times shaking and collapsing against the bed. The first time, he pulled himself back up on his elbows in admirable time; the second time, however, his knees gave way as well, and as he pitched forward, he slid off Tenzjin’s cock. Tenzjin smacked him hard on his ass, open-palmed and with enough force to leave a bright red handprint, and Mot took the hint and rolled over on his back. It didn’t take long for Tenzjin to bury himself inside Mot again, with Mot’s long legs wrapped around his waist. Now he could see what he was doing to Mot as well, see the way his long light eyelashes fluttered every time Tenzjin thrust into him, watch as his prick despite all odds remained flushed and rigid. He was beyond lovely; he was the most beautiful thing Tenzjin had ever seen.
At long last, unable to take the combination of beauty and sensation any longer, Tenzjin pulled out, tore the condom off his cock, and stroked himself twice before coming all over Mot’s belly and chest. It was an unmistakable gesture of defilement, but Mot just smiled as Tenzjin’s come spilled on him, the perfect picture of satiated bliss. His hair was a gravity-defying fright, his front was covered with semen and sweat, small red fingerprint bruises had begun to blossom around his hips, and he still looked ready for more.
He’d planned it, Tenzjin realized, kneeling there with his own cock growing soft in his hand; this had been what he’d wanted all along. Everything before this — the nervousness, the hesitation, the vulnerability — had all been an act. Mot’s tongue darted out to lick a drop of come from his lips, and his teeth flashed in the dim light from the hall, and Tenzjin didn’t know how he’d ever let himself be fooled, not even for a second.
“I know what you are,” said Tenzjin in his native tongue. “I know you’ve come to kill me for what I did.”
Mot opened his bright amber eyes and looked at Tenzjin for a moment — really looked, searched him with a wry gaze, the way a cat might size up a bird — then burst into exhausted laughter as he exhaled and went slack against the soiled, rumpled sheets. “Sorry, they must’ve left that out of my phrasebook. What does it mean?”
Well, if it wanted to play dumb, Tenzjin could play along. “It means, I think you fuck very well,” he lied, “and I want soon to do it again.”
“Oh!” Mot’s cheeks pinkened as he laughed a little more, and he scooted over to make room for Tenzjin. “Oh, say it again, I think that’s a phrase I need to learn.”
“Maybe later.” Fucked too sore to challenge anything at the moment, Tenzjin lay back against the sheets, wincing a little as his knees straightened. The moment he was settled, Mot was on him again, kissing him hard, carding his hands through Tenzjin’s hair. He stretched against Tenzjin’s body, and Tenzjin could feel Mot’s cock jabbing improbably into his hip. They stayed like this for a long moment, mouths and teeth doing battle with one another, kissing in the way lovers might, or at least in the way monsters probably thought lovers might. After several minutes of this, Mot broke from the kiss and began working his way down Tenzjin’s body with lips and tongue, leaving the occasional bitemark as he went. Tenzjin propped his head up with a small pillow. “What are you doing?”
“Something useful with my mouth,” Mot quipped with a smile, and Tenzjin tried not to think of how much he needed a shower or how sore he was going to be in the morning or how sharp those teeth had been as Mot went down.
They showered together after that, part of which involved pressing Mot face-first against the side of the shower and fingering him until he came again, pounding his fist against the safety glass wall and crying out loud enough to be heard over the water stream. It would have been stupid to invite him to stay the night after that, of course, so Tenzjin didn’t — but Mot didn’t ask, just came out of the bathroom, towel-dried his hair, and collapsed on the bed, snoring as soon as he hit the pillow. Tenzjin lay beside him and stared at him in the dark for half the night, waiting for the demon to slip up and reveal it had only been feigning sleep. But Mot’s eyes stayed shut, and as his damp skin dried, he rolled himself up tight in Tenzjin’s sheets until only a tuft of his strange red-black hair poked out at the top. That was fine; the demon was patient, but Tenzjin could be patient too.
Thus he was somewhat startled to wake to the sound of a crash, only to find his bed empty, sunlight streaming in through the windows, and himself still alive. He heard another noise from the rest of his apartment, so he threw on a pair of loose pants, cursing himself all the while for having let his guard down, and padded out barefoot to see what had caused it.
There in the kitchen he found Mot standing amidst his cupboards, looking sheepish as he picked up a pan that had fallen from a high cabinet. “Sorry!” he laughed, seeing Tenzjin standing there. “I didn’t mean to wake you.” He was wearing the robe Tenzjin had been wearing the evening previous — knotted in the back in the way worn only by bodies dressed for burial, though to a mainlander it would have been an honest mistake — and there was no sign of the knife that had been in the sleeve.
Tenzjin raked his fingers through his hair and blinked the sleep from his good eye; the other remained uncovered, but if the scarring hadn’t bothered Mot the night before, it surely was no horror now at dawn. “You didn’t wake me. Are you hungry?”
“I–” Mot’s uncertain look grew into full, charming bashfulness. “I really shouldn’t, it’s all right, I’ve got such a particular diet….”
“What do you eat?” Tenzjin reached for the switch that would start the machine to brew his coffee — then stopped, remembering the restrictions Mot had mentioned the night before. He changed the setting so it would only heat the water; he would make floral tea.
Mot placed the pan back in its original place. “Not very much. Plants, mostly.”
Mot shook his head. “No meat. It’s too hard for me to digest.”
Tenzjin thought about this as he opened the refrigerator and took a trio of plums from the bottom drawer. “Tofu?”
“Tofu?” Mot repeated the word as though it were unfamiliar to him.
Tenzjin took a pack from the refrigerator and handed it to Mot, letting him read the label. “The island uses tofu all the time. Tastes good to everyone, and good for the people who eat no meat, like you.”
Mot regarded the white packet in his hands with some suspicion. “And it’s made from … beans?”
“Not like beans here.” Mainland beans were hard and small, and had to be cooked for hours before they were soft enough to eat. Though Tenzjin knew he could easily afford to have food prepared for him here, just as his family had employed a kitchen staff while he was growing up, he’d found some small comfort in a strange land by teaching himself to cook; partly it was an exercise of control, and partly it was the only way he suspected he’d ever again eat anything but mainland cuisine’s horrifying versions of island dishes.
“And what are those?” Mot pointed to the fruits in Tenzjin’s hand.
“Plums.” They’d been a special order from the grocery supplier and they’d cost nearly three times what Tenzjin would have paid for them growing up.
“Plums don’t look like that.”
“You eat the wrong plums.” Tenzjin pulled a small paring knife from the block on the counter and ran it down the side of the bruise-purple fruit, spilling juice in its wake. He cut a sliver and lifted it, dripping, toward Mot’s face.
To his credit, Mot hesitated for only a moment before opening his mouth and taking the fruit — and the tips of Tenzjin’s fingers — inside his lips. His tongue flicked over Tenzjin’s skin, cleaning it dry of the juices, before he straightened and crushed the plum flesh between his teeth. An expression of rapture washed over his face, a look not unlike the one he’d worn the night before, but simpler and less desperate. “Oh,” he whispered, licking his lips. “I do eat the wrong plums.”
An hour or so later, Mot left with a full belly and without any further verbal acknowledgment of what had happened the night before or discussion of plans for when (or if) anything like it might happen again. They shared a not-overlong kiss just inside Tenzjin’s doorway, but broke apart and straightened up well before the door itself opened to the hallway. There was no one out there, but Mot still looked cautious as he stepped out in the same clothes he’d worn over the night before. The mainland considered the island’s attitude toward sex between men barbaric, and while such might have been tolerated in an outsider like Tenzjin, Mot surely would not have fared so well in the face of this revelation. He strode quickly forth toward the elevators, never looking back, and Tenzjin waved the door shut behind him.
For the three weeks that followed, Tenzjin neither ran into Mot during the day nor found him in the gym even at its oddest hours, and every evening he found himself on the couch with a book, ears straining to hear the door chime.
He also managed a trip down to the company’s library, which was on the ninth floor. (It was strange to him to discover how he could go days, weeks — his entire life, he supposed — without stepping out the building’s front doors.) Their section of island literature and history was sparse, and all in translation besides, but he found one century-dead mainland anthropologist’s collection of what he called Primitive Legends of the Island Peoples. He had prepared an entire explanation for why he’d want a text like that, but in the end, he’d only had to swipe the volume’s barcode under a machine before walking out without having to speak to a single person. Back in his apartment, he’d shoved it between two historical texts on his bookshelf and resolved to stop being so crazy.
A few nights later, he was in a fine formal mainland suit at some fancy occasion or another; he hadn’t planned to attend at all, but Aziiri had strongly suggested, and Tenzjin had learned quickly that the best way to get along in corporate politics was just to do whatever Aziiri said. The suggestion turned out to be a good one, in fact, as Sharni was there with two of his wives at his side, and he had some glowing (if unspecific) things to say about Tenzjin’s recent work toward the company’s cultural sensitivity policies regarding its island governance. Tenzjin nodded where appropriate and did not respond with customary island modesty, but thanked his superior instead before letting the boisterous man and his entourage waddle off elsewhere. A serving girl passed by with a tray of champagne flutes, and he grabbed one; after that, he needed a drink.
Before he could get the glass to his lips, however, a gloved hand came to rest over its mouth. Tenzjin froze in mid-gesture and turned to see Mot next to him, tall and dressed in his formal attire, his hair slicked back against his head and the ghost of a smile on his lips. Without saying anything, Mot shook his head twice and walked off.
Neither that drink nor any other passed Tenzjin’s lips that night, and when he got back to his apartment after leaving the party early, he didn’t even bother to move more than a foot from from the entryway. When the chime rang a few minutes later, he opened the door immediately, and when Mot stepped inside, they exchanged no words. Both of them stood there until the door hissed shut, then Mot grabbed Tenzjin’s tie and yanked him close into a fierce kiss. Tenzjin kissed back, and when his teeth scraped the soft skin of Mot’s lip, Mot just laughed.
They didn’t make it as far as the bedroom this time, nor had more than the minimum of clothing necessary come off by the time Tenzjin had Mot bent over the dining room table, jerking him hard. Some genius bit of foresight had compelled him to bring the lube out from the bedroom — he hadn’t remembered doing it, but wasn’t going to question — but condoms had not come with it. Tenzjin didn’t hesitate, just slicked up his cock and shoved it bare into Mot’s ass. He was good, the best Tenzjin had ever had, hot and tight, and instead of shrinking away from rough contact, Mot lifted his hips to ask for more. Tenzjin grabbed the collar of Mot’s shirt, pulling him back and choking him a little, and Mot responded by yanking at Tenzjin’s tie. When Mot came all across the table, Tenzjin pushed him down chest-first into it, and the sound of outrage Mot made was enough make Tenzjin come inside of Mot, bare and wet; they’d both need a good dry-cleaner after this.
They fucked twice more that night, barely saying more than a few words of direction to one another, and this time Mot didn’t make it to the shower, just collapsed after his last orgasm and fell asleep with Tenzjin’s softening cock still buried in him. They’d both made it nearly to naked in that time, though Tenzjin hadn’t quite lost his tie, and Mot still wore his rumpled, unbuttoned dress shirt and a comical single sock. Tenzjin stayed kneeling on the mattress between Mot’s legs until his own body began to ache, and he decided that even if his guest were comfortable remaining filthy, that didn’t mean Tenzjin had to follow suit. He showered quickly, noting in the mirror as he dried off how a soft ring of red bruises from the tie had already begun to collar his neck.
Instead of going back to bed, though, he went to his bookshelf and picked up the collection of Primitive Legends. He skipped past the introduction, a racist bit of nonsense that he’d already thumbed through in the library, and went straight for the table of contents. The collection was arranged by category, starting with creation stories and family histories of the major deities, then retellings of some of the more notable island epics, then the local legends specific to certain regions. Tenzjin passed all these and went straight to the last section, titled Bestiary.
The volume didn’t even try to preserve the original island names for the creatures, choosing instead to go with translations half-accurate at best, leaving Tenzjin to sort through pages of red gremlins mislabeled as ‘sneaky red men’ and dog spirits butchered into ‘dearest companion ghosts’. The fact that the mainland language in the book was both scholarly and antiquated helped not at all, and something about the typeface made Tenzjin’s head hurt. Naked and curled on his couch in the half-lit apartment, he became surer with every turned page that he had made it all up, mashed the memory together from various half-remembered stories and simply grafted it on to his present circumstances via some terrible subconscious contortion.
Until, that was, he turned the page to the ‘toothed vengeance demon’. He couldn’t remember its real name, but that didn’t matter — he remembered it, somewhere from his grandfather’s stories, its concept buried deeper than the forgotten particulars. Good eye wide, he skipped past the ethnographic details of the first paragraph and jumped to the second, helpfully titled Characteristics.
For all its impenetrability, the prose was clear here: toothed vengeance demons (known in some regions as ‘blood anger demons’ or ‘bloody mouth spirits’) were among the most ruthless and cunning of the fictional creatures this author had encountered. Most of the time they were said to be small, no bigger than a lap dog, with hairy red-black coats and sharp yellow eyes; reports described them as four-legged and fanged, but they could change shape at will, appearing sometimes as other domestic animals and even women. And their entire purpose seemed to be to hunt, seduce, torment, and eventually kill kinslayers.
Tenzjin shut the book with trembling hands and sat for nearly an hour there in the dark, staring into the room’s shadows, listening to his own tidal breath.
At last, he opened the book again and forced his gaze back over the words, an act of discipline from his rational center as it tried to embarrass his superstitious impulse. Making connections here was no more reasonable than seeing patterns in clouds, and flew in the face of all the other information in the entry. These creatures were said to be dedicated carnivores. They could appear and disappear at will. Their teeth gleamed in the dark. Stories told of their turning into women, but never into men. And most importantly, he reminded himself, they were fictional. Nothing but superstitious nonsense. Boogeymen intended to scare credulous people into proper behaviour. Childish garbage.
He forced himself to his feet and replaced the book on the shelf, then marched himself back down the hallway and into the bed. He was being beyond foolish, well into stupid. Anyone else he told would have the same reaction to the idea that the handsome, oddly gentle man snoring and stealing all the covers was a demon. Treating his unusual appearance as a sign of monstrosity was not only unreasonable, it was downright offensive, and just a recapitulation of the same kind of prejudice Tenzjin himself felt from the mainlanders. Tenzjin lay flat on his back, and Mot turned in his sleep and gravitated toward the new warm presence in the bed, his fingers curled loose beneath his chin, his mouth parted to show his perfectly normal, flat, unremarkable, human teeth.
Sleep was long in coming.
His bed was empty the following morning, as it had been the last time he’d let himself do this, only this time Mot was gone as well. Tenzjin walked naked through the apartment as though expecting to see his companion pop out from behind a piece of furniture, but all he found was a brief note left on the counter, penned on the back of an empty envelope in beautiful, clear script: Shipping out this morning. Breakfast when I come back?
He’d known, of course, about the upcoming campaign into the mountain regions to the east, but hadn’t quite made the connection that Mot would be a part of it. He wondered why Mot hadn’t said anything, then remembered neither of them had given the other much of a chance to speak the night previous.
The intervening months passed quickly and without major incident, as far as Tenzjin was concerned. With Aziiri’s help, he started laying the groundwork for an internal security division familiar to but not affiliated with the company’s military divisions. He learned to venture out of the corporate buildings and into the lower-rent parts of town, where he could find authentic island dishes cooked in kitchens the size of his closet, served to him by people who either didn’t know who he was or didn’t care. At the street markets next to these restaurants, he purchased some traditional island crafts and used them to decorate his apartment. The library messaged him, reminding him that his book was due, and he returned the volume without even thinking of renewing it, happy to dismiss all evidence of that ridiculous evening. With Mot gone, sanity could reign.
And Mot was gone: Tenzjin heard the occasional report from the front lines, saw glimpses of him in the company’s internal footage of the conflict, but for the most part, Mot was out of sight. He wasn’t out of mind, though, and Tenzjin found himself thinking on that strange, handsome man whenever his mind had a moment to wander — not nonsense about demons, but about him, the man, the perfectly human man who just happened to resemble a folk fiction.
As he rose in the company’s trust, Tenzjin was at last allowed access to internal documents, including personnel files, and he pulled up the biographical records for all high-raking persons, ready with the explanation if questioned that he was doing research on those for whom he might one day be responsible. He spent the longest time staring at Mot’s, though if anything, the company’s files were less helpful than the speculative tabloid journalism he’d seen before. Still, though issues of Mot’s appearance were never addressed, the company files noted that Dr. Qama had been listed as Mot’s legal guardian until Mot joined the military at sixteen. The records also proved that Mot hadn’t been lying about his allergies, as the list of contraindicated substances went on for nearly three screens and included drug names Tenzjin had never seen before. So he’d been raised in a laboratory and given straight over to the armed forces; no wonder he came off a little funny.
Daily Tenzjin thought about writing him, and daily he stopped himself. If anyone else questioned the reason behind their communication, how would they explain why they, two vague acquaintances as far as everyone else was concerned, were connected? And even if no one else intercepted the messages, what would Tenzjin say? Hello, how are you, I’m fine, things are quiet here without you, hope things are going well killing people, he composed mentally, then cracked himself up. No, he knew the mainland’s opinion on these things. It was better for everyone that they maintained the appearance of being strangers.
Three months to the day after Mot’s departure, Tenzjin was sitting in the middle of yet another weekly board meeting, concentrating mostly on what he might like for lunch as the various department reports went on, when he heard Dr. Qama say, “Mot’s surgery was successful, though I’m planning to keep him in a medically induced coma for a few days while the rest of the toxin works itself out of his system.”
Everyone around the table nodded as though this tidbit was intriguing, but no surprise; Tenzjin, on the other hand, had to will every muscle in his body to stay still and give nothing away. “I see.” Sharni nodded, folding his hands across his stomach as he reclined in his chair. “And when will he be ready to return to the field?”
Qama’s lips thinned as he pressed them together. “Further details are in the report,” he said, gesturing to the packets on the table that everyone received beforehand and no one ever read, “though I would say a conservative estimate would be ten weeks.”
“Ten weeks?” Bassa spoke up; in the absence of the generals, he had come to serve as the military’s voice at the meetings. “The conflict will be over by then!”
“Then it will have to end without him,” Qama said flatly, and that was the end of that.
At the first moment he could, Tenzjin grabbed the packet and made haste back to his office, where he locked the door and flipped it open to Qama’s contributions. Further details were indeed there: the mountain tribes had responded to attacks on their capital city with a nerve gas, which had incapacitated most of the soldiers and sent Mot into full cardiac arrest. By the time he arrived via air transport to Qama’s laboratory, Mot had been clinically dead for over an hour. Qama had revived him — no details here, and Tenzjin wasn’t sure he would have understood them even if there had been — and initiated a procedure intended, as far as Tenzjin could tell, to replace the entire volume of blood in his body. The report left off Qama’s helpful epilogue from the meeting, making Tenzjin glad he hadn’t read the report first, because he didn’t know if he could have sat through it all without knowing that the punchline was but he’s going to be all right.
When Tenzjin was finished, he shut the report and walked over to the window, where the city lay before him, all gleaming metal and motion in the sunlight. He couldn’t grieve, because he couldn’t explain that reaction to anyone else, and everything would be fine anyway. He couldn’t justify being upset, because they didn’t have anything between them even approaching a romantic relationship, and for all he thought about Mot, he had no idea whether or not Mot thought about him. And he couldn’t go see Mot, because Mot was still in a coma thirty flights above him, hooked up to the machines that cleaned his blood and made him breathe.
That evening he went to the gym and battered the punching bag until he wore a hole into its side such that it trailed sand on the floor with every swing. Then he went home and drank half a bottle of scotch, because no one needed his mouth to be clean, as he lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling and hearing no one at the door.
After nearly a month of indecision and news of Mot’s (slowly improving) condition come to him secondhand at best, the question of just what the hell Tenzjin was supposed to do about any of this was answered for him when he was called to Sharni’s office without Aziiri. He put on his best tie and rode the elevator up to the topmost floor, and as he arrived the cheerful secretary smiled at him as though they’d been friends for years and ushered him right in.
He’d never been up here before, and couldn’t help staring: three of the great room’s four walls were made of floor-to-ceiling windows, giving a panoramic view of the city, its surrounding areas, and the mountainous terrain off in the distance. Tenzjin was glad that he had no fear of heights, because otherwise looking down on such a scene, even as far from the glass as he was, might have thrown him for even more of a loop than just being summoned already had. In the center of the room sat a great desk, raised on a small circular platform, and behind that desk sat Sharni, a magnanimous smile on his lips. Beside him stood Dr. Qama, whom Tenzjin had not seen since the board meeting immediately following Mot’s accident; he regarded Tenzjin with a far more suspicious glare, looking down from on high as though there were something about him Qama just couldn’t understand. “Tenzjin, welcome,” said Sharni, who’d gotten much better at pronouncing that islander name since their first introductions. “Have a seat. Would you like something to drink?”
“Oh, no.” Tenzjin sat in the room’s small chair, several feet in front of Sharni’s desk, even the small height difference making him feel not unlike a criminal brought before a judge. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“Well, I’m thirsty,” Sharni said, tapping the desk. “Liya,” he addressed the secretary, who turned to him with her fixed bright smile, “two cups of coffee, please, and some tea for this gentleman, in case he changes his mind.”
With a nod, Liya bustled off, and Tenzjin folded his hands in his lap. “Thank you, sir.” A good islander would — should — have protested having any effort done on his behalf right up until the moment the cup was in his hands, but one of his earliest lessons in dealing with mainlanders had been that such persistent deference read not as politeness, but as weakness. Better just to let what was going to be done be done, and express gratitude for it as it was happening.
Sharni nodded and cleared his throat. “Aziiri tells me things are going well with your project?”
“Yes, sir.” Barely a few months previous, Tenzjin hadn’t ever expected he’d have enough facility with the language to stand before the head of the company (the man who’d destroyed his home, whom he’d helped destroy his home) and explain anything. Immersion, however, had taught him not only the words he needed, but how to pick around what he didn’t know how to say. “I have set up a plan for a team of five men, including myself, trained in many different skills. I have started with four thousand, and I have narrowed that to one hundred.”
“Good, good.” Sharni nodded as Liya brought in the cups; Tenzjin sat his at his side and did not drink it. “That sounds very good. Very useful, too. We’ve had the idea of a small, mostly urban conflict resolution team for a while, but we haven’t really had the impetus or resources until now. Excellent idea. I’m going to have to ask you to put it on ice for a while.”
Tenzjin stared at him for a moment, first trying to remember what that particular idiom meant, then trying to understand what Sharni had meant by it. “Beg pardon?”
Qama stepped forward, around from behind the desk, and handed Tenzjin a slim file folder. “He’s been asking for you,” he said, his voice a quiet challenge.
The contents of the file folder were sparse — a four-page report with a marked-up diagram of a human body and three accompanying sheets of commentary — but the line indicating an old, healed injury at the left knee erased any doubts about whose report this might have been. Tenzjin looked at it, then up at Qama, then back again. “I … I don’t….”
“He’ll need rehabilitation.” Qama folded his arms across his chest. “And he won’t be going back to the army.”
Sharni leaned forward in his chair, causing it to squeak. “Now, remember, that’s his decision–”
“It is my decision,” Qama said without turning to face Sharni, and it was a testament to the force of the snap in his voice that Sharni did not take that sentence any further. “I am his doctor. I have said and he has agreed.”
With a disapproving cluck of his tongue, Sharni leaned back. “The final word on whether or not he returns to the army,” Sharni said to Tenzjin, making Tenzjin feel a bit like a child caught between fighting parents, “will be his when he’s through with his medical leave. If he does choose to be discharged, however, I’d like one of those five slots on your team to be his.”
“Of course,” Tenzjin agreed, not least because to refuse an executive suggestion like that was suicidal folly.
“For the time being, if you accept, you’ll work with him toward his recovery.” Qama’s voice was soft always, and softer still when juxtaposed with Sharni’s perpetual shout, but it had an air that drowned out every other claim to authority in the room. “He has told me you are a master of the same combat style in which he was trained, and that you and he have been sparring partners in the gym before. He has also assured me you keep the same late hours he does; is this correct?”
There seemed to be no hidden weight or meaning behind Qama’s words, and after a moment, Tenzjin nodded. “You would like me to train with him?”
“Get him back on his feet. Literally.” A note of pride quirked the corner of Qama’s mouth. “He heals quickly.”
Sharni’s coffee drinking seemed to have pacified him, and looked down at Tenzjin over the rim of the mug. “If you’ve got nothing pressing to return to, I’m sure Dr. Qama would like to get his prize project up and about again as soon as possible.”
The expression on Qama’s face remained unmoved at this, though that was telling in and of itself. “If you’ve got nothing pressing,” he echoed, looking down at Tenzjin.
Leaving his tea untouched on the table beside the chair, Tenzjin stood. “No, nothing. Thank you, sir.” He gave a nod of acknowledgment to Sharni, then followed Qama out of the room.
On the way back to the elevator shaft, Tenzjin gave Liya a small smile of acknowledgment, which she returned from behind her delicate fingers, but Qama looked straight ahead, making his beeline for the button to summon the elevator car. They waited as the machinery whirred and spun unseen behind the metal doors, and though Tenzjin expected some further explanation or discussion, Qama neither spoke to nor looked at him. Tenzjin held the folder at his side and waited until the car arrived, then let Qama step in first and key in the code that would take them to the floor with his laboratory.
After the doors shut, a silence fell that Tenzjin assumed would follow them all the way down; he therefore jumped a bit with surprise as Qama said, apropos of nothing, “My mother’s side of the family is from the island.”
Tenzjin turned to look at him, squinting in the elevator’s dim light. Qama was paler than other mainlanders tended to be — not as pale as Mot, or even Tenzjin, but certainly lighter-skinned, though in a way Tenzjin simply assumed was from confining himself to a laboratory at all hours. “She was born there?”
“She was born here, but her parents were born there.” Qama did not look at Tenzjin as he spoke, choosing to keep his whole body fixed forward.
Not sure what he was supposed to do with this information, Tenzjin nodded and adopted a similar pose. “I did not know.”
“No, of course you wouldn’t. I make something of an effort not to have people know.” Qama chuckled softly at his own joke. “But I know what it is to feel like you don’t belong.”
“Of course.” Tenzjin nodded again, still not certain what he was meant to make of this information.
Qama’s spindly hand shot out and hit the HOLD button on the elevator, and Tenzjin stumbled forward as the car lurched to a stop. He turned to see what the matter was, and found Qama staring at him, nearly eye to eye, glaring over the tops of his glasses. “He is the closest thing I will ever have to a son,” he said, and his soft voice was edged with knives. “He makes his own decisions but he does not always make the best decisions for himself. I do not trust you. You should not take this personally, but you should take it as an article of faith.”
Whatever Qama knew, or thought he knew, Tenzjin still was willing neither to confirm nor to back down. “I understand you are concerned,” Tenzjin said, keeping his voice as even as he could even in the face of such a challenge, “and I will respect his wishes in all things.”
As concessions went, it was hardly an admission of guilt, and barely an admission of anything else, but Qama appeared calmed by it, and after another moment, he sent the elevator back along its way. “I named him for my great-grandfather, my mother’s grandfather.”
Tenzjin frowned, puzzled. “‘Mot’ is an island name?”
That won a sharp, barking laugh from Qama, the first of that kind Tenzjin had ever heard from him. “No, it’s not. But I thought mainlanders would have less trouble with it than they would ‘Ngamotzjang’.”
The word from Qama’s lips, perfectly pronounced, made the hairs on the back of Tenzjin’s neck stand up. “That … was your grandfather’s name?”
“It was written on a small altar my great-grandmother made for him. When my mother died, I inherited all the family mementos she’d brought with her. Ah, we’re here.” The doors slid open and Qama stepped out first into the cold white hallway, his long lab coat trailing behind him.
Tenzjin wanted to follow right on Qama’s heels, but it took a moment for him to collect himself. He knew what must have happened: Qama had not removed the portrait in the center of the shrine, on the back of which would have been written his great-grandfather’s full nine-character name and titles, preserved forever behind the man’s image. Instead, he’d looked only at the front of the small box and taken the writing there to be identification — which it was, but not the kind Qama had taken it to be. Islander altars were often made for individuals while they were still alive, usually with that person’s input toward his own memorial, and only upon that person’s death were the boxes marked to show that person now belonged to the realm of the ancestors, a distinction made inscribing the front with the name of Ngamotzjang, the death god.
An honest mistake, Tenzjin told himself, clenching his fists and stepping forward so as not to fall too far behind. An honest mistake intended to be an honest tribute, and there was nothing to be read into an error like that, nor anything to be gained by pointing it out to a man trying to honour his heritage. But the feeling he’d gotten when he’d heard the word refused to go away.
“Again?” Tenzjin asked, steadying his grip on the bamboo rod.
Mot nodded and lifted his own weapon … then shook his head and let his arms fall to his sides. “No, sorry, I … just a moment?”
Tenzjin nodded and stepped back from his stance. “Of course. My job is to heal you, not break you more.”
With a sheepish laugh, Mot sat down on the gym floor right where he was, then stretched out so he lay flat on his back, his arms and legs extended. His long pants and long-sleeved shirt were both soaked through with sweat, and he smiled as Tenzjin dribbled a small stream of cold water across his face. “Planning on drowning me?”
Tenzjin looked at the water bottle in his hand, which by this point in the workout was well under half full. “I don’t think I prepared enough.” He twisted the cap on tight, then dropped it into Mot’s waiting hands; Mot took a long drink and poured another splash onto his hair before collapsing flat against the floor again. Satisfied that his sparring partner would be out for at least another ten minutes, Tenzjin steadied himself with the pole and stretched out the muscles in his calf.
Qama’s decision to start Mot’s therapy directly after the meeting with Sharni had been ambitious, at best; when they’d arrived, they’d learned from a nurse that Mot had just managed to fall back asleep, and Qama had made the decision not to wake him. The following day, however, Mot had been ready to make an attempt at getting up and moving around, though even the simple set of warmup exercises that Tenzjin led him through in his quarantine room had been more than enough to exhaust him. Every day since, they’d managed a little more, sometimes getting down to the gym twice a day, until today Mot had managed to push himself nearly an hour before asking for a rest.
After a moment, Mot propped himself up on his elbows. “Are you doing anything for the New Year?”
Tenzjin was about to point out that the mainland calendar wouldn’t roll over for another five months, when he realized what Mot meant — in two days’ time, the lunar cycle would restart, and the island would be full of lights and celebrations and fireworks. It was the biggest island celebration, and in only half a year’s time, Tenzjin had become so disconnected from his upbringing that he had literally forgotten what day it was. “No,” he said, trying to pretend like Mot hadn’t been his first reminder. “I never did much to celebrate.”
“I was there, during the New Year, on the island,” said Mot, and when Tenzjin turned to him with a surprised look on his face, Mot laughed. “Before the fighting started, I was there as part of the negotiations between the company and one of the merchant alliances of the southern port towns, I don’t recall which one. There was a parade outside, and I asked if I could go see it, and this woman — I’m so embarrassed, I can’t remember her name — took me on a guided tour of the area. I got to see the children’s parade and the candle-boats, and a lot of dancing.”
Tenzjin’s hands gripped the pole tighter as he shifted all his weight to his right leg and lifted his left one straight out behind him; he didn’t feel nostalgic for things like that, and he didn’t want to hear the same from someone who didn’t deserve it. “None here.”
“Down in some parts of the city, there is. I’ve heard, but I’ve never gone.”
That made some sense, Tenzjin thought; after all, a large enough population to sustain restaurants and a large market would no doubt be able to put something together for such an important festival. He hadn’t gone back again since he’d started talking care of Mot, though, and while he had no compunctions about relationships based around financial transactions, he didn’t know how he felt about trying to share celebratory sentiments with strangers who would have been well within their rights to hate him. “Before you came here, did you used to participate in festivals like that?” Mot asked.
Of course he had: his father had been one of the lords, after all, the magistrate of one of the largest districts in the capital, and not only had Tenzjin and his brothers participated, they had often been involved in various important parts of the ceremonies. Every year, he and his brothers had distributed coins and cakes to the onlookers; when he’d been five, Tenzjin had been the one to light the bonfire that began the festivities; at twenty-two, he and the minister’s daughter to whom he’d been arranged to be married when she turned nineteen had stood, costumed, in the roles of the sky god and sea goddess in the great parade. “No,” he lied. It was easier.
Mot pulled himself up into a cross-legged position. “Do you miss your home?”
For all the time he’d spent ruminating on his distance from the island and comparing it to the mainland, Tenzjin had not expected to find that question worded thus on his plate, and it shocked him silent. He took a deep, slow breath and let it out again as he switched legs, feeling the heavy pull in his muscles as they strained against gravity. “No,” he said at last. “There are things I miss. But home….” He shook his head. “It’s not my home.”
“What about your family?”
The question had been innocent enough, and not even a note of malice had accompanied it, but hearing it asked made Tenzjin want to take the bamboo practice pole and shatter all the mirrors in the training room, just pound them into shards. No one else here had ever asked, because everyone else knew. Everyone knew; there was no way Mot could have not known. And yet he sat there on the floor, looking up at Tenzjin with those strange wide yellow eyes, waiting on the answer.
“I killed my family,” said Tenzjin evenly, and he looked away so he wouldn’t have to see what Mot thought of that. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“Wanted?” Mot repeated, his voice dazed. “No, I didn’t mean–”
“Not myself, but I knew it would happen. I knew they would fight to the end, and I knew if the end came soon, they would make their own ends. So I stopped them. The people they were supposed to protect, I didn’t let them use those people as their shield.” Tenzjin laughed and shook his head. “Sounds so noble. No, I got ahead out of it. My father cut my eye out with his knife when he learned what I did, but an eye was all I lost. He cut his own throat with the same. I did what was good for me. And maybe they could have lived with defeat, but they could not live with my shame on them.”
It was more words than he’d said to Mot at one time, perhaps more than he’d said at once to anyone since he arrived, and he found that bring voice to such worries did not make them better; in fact, hearing the admission from his own lips, he felt sick. Small wonder his family had killed themselves soon after they’d found out how he’d betrayed the city’s defenses to the mainlanders and left his own people open for a swift defeat. If he’d had a shred of decency, he would have seen the error his ways at the time and followed their example. But decency was one virtue he’d never possessed.
Mot cleared his throat, and when Tenzjin glanced at him out of the corner of his vision, he saw Mot had drawn his knees close to his chest and wrapped his long, pale arms around them. “I’m sorry, I–”
“Forget it.” Tenzjin waved his hand in the air, then dropped the pole to the ground; it made a satisfying clatter as it bounced off the polished wood. “We are done for today. Go rest. Tomorrow will be longer.” Without waiting for a response or turning back to see what he’d left, he strode out of the gym much as he had after their first encounter, feeling just as unsatisfied as he had then.
At home he stripped himself of his workout clothes, took a brief shower, and poured himself several fingers of whiskey, most of which went down in a single swallow. With that soundly on its way into his bloodstream, he stretched out on his couch and draped his forearm across his face. It never ended; he was never going to get away from it. He could live with the guilt from one minute to the next, that was barely even an effort, but to know that the past was inescapable, that it would in fact hound him for the rest of his life … well, that approached unbearable. He did a quick mad calculation of the deadly objects he had in his apartment, wondering which might be the closest, which might be quickest, which might be the most likely to get the job done right the first time and not leave him open to further humiliation and failure.
He finished the whiskey about the same time he narrowed down his options to his company-issued pistol and the short sword he kept hanging in his bedroom, a decision which perversely calmed him in general, and was pondering the mechanics of a refill when the door chime sounded. Finding his way to his feet proved more difficult than he might have liked, but he did, and he was only half surprised when the door slid open to reveal the only person that ever came calling.
“Sorr–” Mot stopped mid-word and sniffed the air. “…Have you been drinking?”
Tenzjin looked down at the empty glass in his hand, then back at Mot. “Little,” he said, steadying himself against the door. He couldn’t find it in his heart to feel angry at Mot about either what had happened earlier or coming over; he could barely feel his feet. “…Little lot.”
“Oh.” Mot’s expression darkened, and he stepped back; he’d changed clothes, but he still smelled of sweat, and he wasn’t moving as fast as he usually did. That, at least, was true of them both. “…I just came by to apologize.”
“Apologize inside.” Tenzjin stepped back from the door and waved Mot in.
Both times he’d come before, Mot had wasted no time in getting out of the hallway where someone might see him, but this time he hesitated, glancing nervously from the glass back to Tenzjin’s lips. “I should go….”
“No.” If he’d been thinking clearly, he would have sent Mot safely away, downed a significant amount of water, and put himself to bed, but clarity was in short supply in Tenzjin’s brain at the moment. “Get in. Come in or everyone will see. Everyone will know I fuck you.”
Mot’s eyes went wide until Tenzjin could see the white all around his yellow irises, and he hurried in. The door slid shut behind him, but he neither fell into Tenzjin’s arms nor took of his shoes as he had before. They’d spent plenty of time together since Mot’s return from the campaign, but Qama had from the start been prone to dropping in on them unannounced, and except to stretch and spar, neither one had so much as placed a hand on the other. Now they were alone again, really alone for the first time in months, and the two feet between them seemed an uncrossable ocean.
Tenzjin first broke the glass tension, pushing at the center of Mot’s chest before shuffling back toward the couch. “Shouldn’t say about fucking you,” he mumbled by way of half-apology. “I don’t since a while.” The drunker he got, the more language he lost, until he suspected he his best method of communication might have been just to point and grunt. In a swish of long heavy robes, he collapsed back on the couch, boneless drunk.
Mot inched his way across the apartment, though he kept his distance. “I’m sorry.”
With an angry snort, Tenzjin shook his head. “I’m … bad.” More than faintly disgusted with himself, he dropped his empty glass and let it wheel to a stop across the carpet. “Always just bad.”
“No!” Mot took a great breath and let it out through pursed lips, then took the nearest chair and turned it so it faced Tenzjin, still just beyond arm’s reach, before sitting in it. “I’ve … been thinking about it a lot. While I was away, and now that I’m feeling better.”
Tenzjin frowned; it seemed reasonable for Mot to be thinking about sex, now that they were so close and in the same room where they’d started, but Tenzjin hadn’t expected the admission about his being on Mot’s mind at war. It seemed too neat, too sympathetic to be true. “You’re a fucking liar,” he mumbled, turning his face into the pillow as he slid back into his native tongue.
“I’m telling the truth!” Mot sighed and slouched in the chair. “I don’t know … how any of this works. I’ve never done this before. Any of it. Not with you or with anyone. And I can’t ask anyone about it, because this isn’t supposed to happen, and … I’m always afraid I’m doing something wrong.”
“Something wrong?” Tenzjin echoed.
Mot nodded, then clasped his hands together and rested his forearms across his thighs. “And it’s stupid because I don’t know … if this, you and me, is something where I should worry about doing something wrong. Or if we’re just,” Mot bit his lip and took a deep breath before finishing the sentence, “fucking.”
Tenzjin shuffled himself into a seating position; he felt as though he’d woken up in the middle of being hit by a train he hadn’t even heard coming. He’d thus far managed to avoid a discussion like this for his entire life: prostitutes didn’t care beyond the paycheck, casual fucks went home the next morning and never got called again, and arranged marriages knew exactly where they stood at all times, right up until the arrangement got broken when her father left the country ahead of what he saw (correctly) as the inevitable invasion. “Don’t know,” Tenzjin finally answered. “What do you want?”
“I want you,” said Mot, so pure and simple and plain that it shamed Tenzjin for all the bullshit he’d been putting the man through. Maybe it didn’t have to be that complicated; maybe they could just fuck without having it be just fucking. Mot started to stand, moving toward the couch — but stopped and sat back down. “Maybe later, though.”
“Oh, no.” His limbs liquid with drunkenness, Tenzjin had a little trouble standing — but really, it didn’t matter when all he needed to do was advance a few feet before sinking to his knees between Mot’s thighs. Mot watched him with wide eyes and swallowed hard, but didn’t protest as Tenzjin went for the fly of his trousers, beneath which Tenzjin was pleased to find strong, hard evidence of just how much Mot wanted him. “You? Stay.” It had been well over a decade since he’d had another man’s cock in his mouth, but some things one never forgot; he opened wide and took Mot’s shaft between his lips, pleased that it was only yet half-hard, because Tenzjin didn’t think his mouth would stretch much further.
Mot gasped, and his hands turned into claws around the chair’s armrests. “No,” he gasped, but the source of his protest was not clear and he did not repeat the request, and as such, Tenzjin didn’t stop. Instead, he wrapped his hand around the base of Mot’s cock, trying to cope with its impressive length as it just grew fuller at his touch. His tongue flicked along the underside of the head, and Mot gasped again, this time choosing to grab at Tenzjin’s hair, yanking handfuls so hard that Tenzjin felt a few strands give. He redoubled his efforts with his mouth, bobbing his head up and down like a careless teenager who had not yet learned any dignity about conducting himself during sex, and Mot went wild for it, thrashing and whimpering and coming in no time flat. Tenzjin swallowed him down, drunk and self-satisfied, and did not let go until Mot’s cock was soft enough to slip out and fall from his lips on its own.
When he raised his head, he saw Mot’s expression of genuine surprise. “That….” Mot cleared his throat. “That, um, you?” He let go of Tenzjin’s hair and combed his own back from his face.
“So.” Tenzjin rose and straddled Mot’s knees, coming to sit facing one another on his lap in a way that parted his robe obscenely and left no doubt as to what effect Mot’s arousal had on Tenzjin’s own. “Can’t kiss you.”
Mot bit his lower lip and shook his head. “No.”
“You can’t suck me.”
“I….” Mot thought about this for a moment, then gave a nervous laugh. “I hadn’t thought about that, but no, I guess I can’t.”
“Can’t come in you.” Tenzjin’s fingers wrapped lightly around Mot’s cock, and he was pleased to feel it give a small lurch toward life again as he said that.
“No.” Mot shook his head again.
“But,” Tenzjin leaned in to kiss at Mot’s ear, which he supposed would be safe, “you came to be fucked.”
Holding Mot’s cock like that was like having a lie detector on the man; the answers were there even before he said them. “Yes,” Mot gasped, grabbing at Tenzjin’s bare thighs. “I did.”
Tenzjin nipped at Mot’s earlobe, enjoying how Mot squirmed and gasped beneath him. “So be careful.”
As it turned out, still being in recovery meant that Mot’s sexual stamina was reduced all the way down the the level of a normal man’s. He only came once more that evening, but when he did, it was on all fours, face-down into the pillow, with Tenzjin’s latex-covered cock deep in his ass. Tenzjin wasn’t far behind him, but this time the condom stayed on until he was well done, and when he pulled out of Mot’s handsome, satisfied body, he had to tie it shut before tossing it into the wastebasket. He thought he might have been able to get it up once more, but one look at Mot’s exhausted sprawl told him that wouldn’t be necessary, so instead he stretched out his arm across Mot’s side of the bed and smiled as Mot took the opportunity to make it his pillow. “Good?” he asked with a smirk.
Mot laughed and kissed the side of Tenzjin’s chest. “Good, but … better when I can use my mouth too.”
Tenzjin ruffled Mot’s hair. “Next time.”
“Next time,” Mot echoed. “…Tomorrow?”
“I will be fine by tomorrow morning. Eh, maybe hung over,” Tenzjin added, though he was still awake enough yet to drink some water to try and cut that off at the pass. Maybe if he worked up the energy, he could do that before he passed out.
Instead of smiling at the quip, however, Mot sighed and hugged Tenzjin closer. “I have to go.”
“Go?” Tenzjin frowned. “Now?”
Mot nodded and gave Tenzjin’s chest one more kiss before pulling away and standing by the side of the bed; he stretched his arms above his head, sending off several rifle-fire cracks as his joints popped, then grabbed a few tissues from the bedside table to clean himself off. “Dr. Qama will be looking for me. I’ve got to do another treatment round before bed.”
Given that both times before Mot’s presence in his bed had given Tenzjin a pair of near-sleepless nights, he was surprised to find that the idea of Mot’s not staying the night left him wrestling down a serious sense of disappointment. “Oh.” Tenzjin swallowed hard before shaking it off and reaching for his robe, which had barely made it to his side of the bed. “Then … tomorrow. Night. Tomorrow night.”
“Work out a little, then come back here.” Mot dressed quickly, moving with his peculiar grace, which had slowly begun to return to him; Tenzjin hadn’t fully appreciated what a part of Mot it was until they’d met in that hospital room, with Mot listless and moving only as much as he could while still strapped to an IV, an image that hadn’t quite yet unburned itself from the inside of Tenzjin’s eyelids. “Maybe dinner?”
“I’ll cook.” Tenzjin shoved his hands into the deep sleeves of his robe. He wasn’t quite drunk anymore, but he wasn’t sober either, and the high of the sex was starting to wear off, leaving him only with the sick feeling of alcohol left too long on an otherwise empty stomach.
Mot smiled. “I’d like that.” He cupped Tenzjin’s face in his hand and gave him a soft, chaste kiss on the corner of his mouth. “Otherwise I may get hungry and just eat you.”
A joke, of course, Tenzjin told himself long after he’d seen Mot out the front door and returned to his bed, where the rumpled, sticky sheets still smelled of sex. Something any normal person might say in jest and laugh if it were taken too seriously. Try though he might to put it from his mind, he found sleeping with Mot left him no more insomniac than did sleeping without.
Mot did not sleep over again during the next several weeks, citing Qama’s expecting him to show up for treatment before bedtime, but he was over at Tenzjin’s nearly every night, and every night they wound up naked and tangled in bed — or on the couch, or on the floor, or over the dining room table, or in the shower, or really anywhere else in the apartment they both happened to be when they made the mutual decision that it was time to for sex. Tenzjin didn’t know what Mot told Qama to account for his presence every evening after his workout, nor how he explained what bruises and marks he accumulated, and after enough nights of coming in, on, and around Mot sometimes three or four times at a go, he decided he didn’t care.
Mot also did not go back to the army. He turned in his formal discharge papers soon afterward, and though Sharni obviously did not like the decision, he made good on his word to respect it. The paperwork went through in a day to transfer Mot to Tenzjin’s team, but since the team consisted only of the two of them at that moment, and since Aziiri had agreed that Tenzjin should not work further toward developing it until Mot was fully healed, the move essentially gave each of them the sole job of being around the other. Neither one gave a word of complaint.
The idea that Mot might be a demon of any stripe had been absurd from the outset, and Tenzjin knew that all his logic and rational thought should have long since banished that possibility — yet try though he might, he still couldn’t shake the ghost of that terrible thought. He certainly couldn’t have explained it to Mot either, though, so Tenzjin made it something of a quiet private joke with himself. One evening after they’d finished a rough round of sex — in the bed, where they hadn’t been in several days, on account of just not making it that far — Tenzjin found himself with Mot curled up beside him, completely unguarded and defenseless. “You are the worst demon ever,” he chuckled, tapping Mot on the tip of his nose.
Mot wrinkled up his nose and frowned in mock consternation. “What are you saying about me?”
“That you are handsome,” Tenzjin lied. “Beautiful.”
“Why don’t you say it normally, then?” Mot rolled on top of Tenzjin so they were facing one another, each one with a knee between the other’s thighs.
Tenzjin shrugged. “I don’t think first in this language.”
Mot considered this for a moment, then nodded, bouncing a little atop Tenzjin. “Teach me.”
“Teach you what?”
“Some words. I know some already.”
“Oh?” Tenzjin raised an eyebrow.
“Like….” Mot looked upward, thinking. “Rice. Um, water. And please.”
“Very good,” Tenzjin said, impressed by the fluidity of Mot’s accent; if he hadn’t known better, Tenzjin might have guessed he was a native speaker. “Do you know what they mean?”
“They’re what to say if the people you’re talking to don’t seem hostile.”
“Mm, and if they do?”
Mot shrugged, looking nonchalant as ever. “Drop your weapon or I will burn your mother alive.”
The smile didn’t fall off Tenzjin’s face, but instead froze there, seizing up all his other muscles in turn. “Do … you know what that means?” he asked at last.
“I think? Essentially.”
“And did you ever?”
Mot chuckled. “You know, just saying it usually worked pretty well.”
Given the way Mot looked, Tenzjin had no doubt that statement was true; if he’d been struck with the resemblance upon seeing Mot the first time, he could imagine how much more of a reaction the more superstitious rural islanders must have responded to see the invading army come with a being straight from hell at its head. Instead of answering, he tossed Mot off onto his back and climbed on top of him, ending that particular conversation right there.
They talked often, though, far more than Tenzjin had ever suspected their relationship would require, and Tenzjin came to find that he enjoyed it almost as much as he did the sex. Despite his aggressive career history, Mot was always sweet and even came off a little naive at times. He trusted everything Tenzjin said implicitly, to the point where Tenzjin sometimes had to admit that whatever story he’d just told about the island’s secret dancing flowers or carnivorous purple ducks had in fact been a complete lie. Mot never seemed upset about having his credulity abused, only laughed at himself when Tenzjin revealed the truth and swore never to trust Tenzjin again. He never brought up any information about his past and Tenzjin never asked, and every time Tenzjin spoke in his native tongue, whether to praise or to goad, Mot stared back at him with not the slightest inkling of comprehension on his face.
In the midst of one conversation or another, Tenzjin had remarked upon the curious quality of Mot’s hair, and Mot had complained about how fast it grew and how often he needed to get it cut, which had led somehow to their both being naked in Tenzjin’s white stone bathroom, Mot with a towel around his shoulders and Tenzjin with a pair of scissors in his hand. He didn’t know much about being a barber, but he knew how to cut. He poured a cup of water over Mot’s head, raked a comb through the soft strands, set the shears to the line of Mot’s hair where the auburn stopped and the black began, and squeezed his hand together; the blades rang out as they pushed past one another, and snips of hair scattered down.
“Have you ever done this before?” asked Mot, his eyes shut and his hands folded in his lap as he sat atop a low stool.
“Never.” The blades were sharp, because Tenzjin knew that a dull blade was a useless blade, whether they were parts of weapons or tools. There was never any reason one could not turn into the other, given the right circumstances. Mot’s pale, bare neck lay exposed before him, slender and lovely and fragile. For all his strength, he was delicate in so many ways, so vulnerable.
The scissors sang their cutting song as Tenzjin cropped Mot short again, until his wild hair was entirely ginger. “Lean back,” Tenzjin directed, and Mot did, exposing the geography of his throat, the mountain of his adam’s apple, the way the faint blue veins ran rivers beneath his skin. There was blood beneath there, and his windpipe under that, barely protected. Tenzjin lifted the nozzle of the shower spray and ran warm water through Mot’s hair until no more pieces came out. By the time he stopped, the very tips of the strands had already begun to blacken.
They lay together in his bathtub after that, Tenzjin pressed back against the marble side despite his smaller size, spooning Mot, whose newly shorn head rested damply against Tenzjin’s shoulder. The water was warm and smelled of lavender, and the humid air of the bathroom made everything seem heavy and soft.
He only realized he’d drifted off when he felt Mot stir against him, and he looked to find that Mot had stretched his arm out of the tub and reached for a stack of books on a nearby ledge cut into the stone. “What are these?” he asked, flipping open the cover of the first and revealing columns of complicated islander characters.
“Poetry.” Tenzjin blinked a few times, clearing his head of fog from his impromptu nap. “I like to read while I sit in here. It lets me relax.”
Mot sat up in the tub, sending little waves sloshing over the sides; he dried his hands on the towel over the water fixture before reaching for the top volume and thumbing through its pages. “Did you bring these with you?”
Tenzjin shook his head. “I brought almost nothing. I bought them in the market. Old copies, and they were cheap, so I can read them in the bathtub and not worry when they get wet.”
Mot chuckled and kept thumbing through. “This is beautiful, all this writing. I don’t recognize any of it, though.”
“Because it’s old. And it’s….” He shuffled through his mind for the mainland word for ‘calligraphy’, but came up blank. “Fancy writing. For special books. These are famous poems, two hundred, three hundred years old. These are some I learned in school.”
“It’s lovely.” Mot shut the volume and extended it toward Tenzjin, looking hopeful. “Will you read me some?”
It seemed something of a curious request, given their circumstances at the moment, but Mot never asked for much, and as such Tenzjin was hard-pressed not to comply when he did. His hands had been resting along the sides of the tub such that he deemed them dry enough, and he had few reservations about damaging the cover of a book that had cost him half the price of the rice dish he’d bought at the stand next door to the bookseller’s. “All right,” he said, taking the book from Mot’s hands. “What should I read a poem about?”
Mot frowned, thinking. “…The ocean?”
“There’s a very famous poem about the ocean and snow, let me see….” Tenzjin flipped ahead to one of the used book’s dog-eared pages, looking for the work in question. He might have been able to recite it from memory, and if he’d missed a few words here or there Mot wouldn’t have known the difference, but there was still something to act of seeing the writing on the page that he enjoyed; perhaps he’d even teach Mot a few of the characters, tracing them in bathwater on his skin. The book’s previous owner had been a reader of taste, and there was a deep crease in the page in question; a short paragraph at the top gave a brief biography of the poet, and beneath that began the epic depiction of a blizzard that catches a small fishing fleet.
What caught Tenzjin’s eye, however, was not the famous poem, but a much shorter work on the facing page. For all the times he’d been through the book, Tenzjin had never noticed this particular entry before. Attributed to an anonymous monk of a long-defunct sanctuary, the irregular poem contained only thirteen lines and a peculiar title: Master Lhadroma’s Advice to His Pupil on the Exorcism of Demons. Tenzjin took a deep breath.
“To exorcise a demon,” he began, without further introduction or translation, “you must not look it in the eye / not let it make a home inside you: / a demon eats your heart; a demon / comes from the heart; it sits and waits / from one beat to the next; it neither sleeps / nor lets you sleep; it neither eats / nor lets you eat; it will not leave hungry.” Tenzjin paused to look at Mot, looking for any sign that he might know the poem’s true subject, and what he saw caught him by surprise — Mot had closed his eyes to listen, but a line had begun to furrow his brow like a crack in the earth, and his expression was what Tenzjin would expect of a man who believed he was hearing a quaint poem about the ocean. With a slight sense of unease, Tenzjin continued on to the second stanza: “Foolish boy! Look at its mouth! / Your blood already gleams on its lips; / you can chase it from this house, but it will never / lose your taste, nor will you get back / the heart it has swallowed whole.”
As the poem ended, he fell silent, staring at the words on the page, and after enough time had passed, Mot opened his eyes again and lifted the corners of his mouth in a winning smile, dismissing anything else that had been there before. “That was beautiful,” he said, stretching his body out along Tenzjin’s until they were chest-to-chest again. “Do I get a translation?”
“I couldn’t do it justice.” Tenzjin shook his head, expecting Mot to be disappointed, to urge him to at least try — but Mot only smiled and kissed him, wrapping his long arms around Tenzjin’s neck. Tenzjin stretched out his arm to put the book back on the ledge, but his blind attempts at locating its proper spot missed, and it toppled off the edge into a puddle on the floor; by the time they climbed out of the dirty, cold bathwater, it was ruined through.
In the end, after nights of pacing instead of sleeping, screaming at himself to be reasonable, Tenzjin had concluded there was only one thing left that would make him feel better about this. It was excessive and it was stupid, and it flew in the face of every bit of reason, but what he had here was at best an irrational delusion, and as such he could only cure it by irrational measures.
He hadn’t expected to find any help at the tiny bookseller’s, but lo and behind, there was a single volume of its kind, buried behind stacks of cheap-printed island histories. He grabbed five other books at random from around it so that the seller would not ask questions, but the old woman only took his money and handed him his purchases in a brown paper bag. He kept the sack sealed until he was back inside his apartment, and when he put the books away, he arranged them so that the real purpose of his trip was hidden behind his other purchases, masked by unreadable titles, giving no one any reason to look. He didn’t know what he feared more: having his foolish intentions discovered, or having them discovered and then discovering himself that they weren’t so foolish at all.
A week after Tenzjin had made his purchase, Mot came to his apartment per usual, and he sat and talked across the kitchen counter as Tenzjin fixed them both dinner, a stir-fry of vegetables and tofu in a plum sauce that he knew Mot liked best. They ate at opposite ends of the small table, chattering throughout on inconsequential topics, and when they were finished, Tenzjin told Mot to wait there as he cleared their dishes into the kitchen. There, blocked from Mot’s view, he reached into the pantry and pulled out a small bundle. It was all ridiculous, he told himself, and he’d prove it now, he’d see.
He came back to find Mot sitting there, playing with the lemon slice on the rim of his water glass. Mot smiled when he saw Tenzjin, but frowned with curiosity as he looked at what he carried. “What’s that?”
“Something new,” Tenzjin said, hoping his tone came off as sexy and not rattled. “Do you trust me?”
Mot’s mouth lifted into a handsome smile, the one that showed just a hint of his teeth. “Of course,” he said.
“Good.” Tenzjin put the pile down on the table and lifted one item off the top: a single long, thin strip of white cloth. Without explaining, he gathered it in his hands and wrapped it around Mot’s eyes, tying it in the back. “Can you see?” he asked, waving his hand in front.
Mot shook his head. “Everything’s dark.” His smile widened, though something about being unable to see Mot’s eyes made the expression look forced. “Am I waiting for some surprise?”
“Just wait.” Tenzjin took a second strip of cloth, one made of thicker material and with words painted on it; he took both Mot’s hands and gathered them behind the chair, then bound them together with it. Mot did not struggle or ask why, but he was no longer smiling by the time Tenzjin was done binding Mot’s ankles to the chair legs with two more such fetters. “You’ll like it.” Mot bit his lower lip and swallowed hard.
Satisfied that step had been completed, Tenzjin stood and took from the table the book that had been his real goal at the seller’s. The thin volume’s cover was embossed with a single gold character, the one that marked it as being a collection of rituals, and Tenzjin had left a ribbon marking the section labeled Exorcisms. The text he’d painted on the scarves was a binding spell that had come from the book, and though it had been listed there as the traditional writing on warding talismans, he assumed it had applications into the literal as well as the metaphorical. He took a black candle from the bundle and lit it, and the acrid smell of the struck match filled the room, followed by the perfume of the wax.
Held fast to the chair, Mot began to squirm. “Is … is something burning?” he asked, sniffing at the air. He seemed as anxious as he had been the first time he’d walked into Tenzjin’s apartment — even more so, in fact, for while he’d only been nervous before, now he looked downright scared. Seeing that expression gave Tenzjin pause, but he pushed past any remaining reservations, reminding himself that if he was wrong then Mot had nothing to fear anyway, and began to chant.
The syllables had once been words, no doubt, but that had been so long ago that now even to Tenzjin they were only sounds strung together, nonsense that called back to a time centuries before he’d been born, written by a group of people that believed things Tenzjin had never wanted to think might be true. He’d spent the past week committing them to memory, practicing again and again until he was sure he could say the whole phrase without error. He held the book open before him anyway, though, a crutch in case he lost concentration.
As it turned out, that was a smart move: at the sound of the first syllable, Mot flinched, jerking against his bonds as though he’d been hit with hot grease, surprising Mot so much that he went utterly blank on what came next. His gaze darted to the page, to the line he’d marked with pen, and he picked up the chant again with barely a missed beat. Mot’s mouth fell open into a gasp, and Tenzjin could hear Mot’s ragged breathing over the sound of his own voice. He tried to focus, tried to remember the way he’d been taught in the shrines as a boy — even breath, even pitch, even pace, letting the sounds of each individual syllable fall over one another. How his teachers would have laughed, had they still been alive to do so, seeing their most skeptical and resistant pupil finally applying himself to his studies. He made it through one repetition of the chant, then seamlessly began again.
By the time the second iteration began, Mot’s first flinch had turned into utter panic. “Tenzjin?” Mot forced a laugh into his voice that he audibly didn’t mean, but his words were mostly air. “I don’t … don’t think I like this.”
Tenzjin kept chanting, pausing only as needed for breath; he held the book in his left hand and took a small knife in his right, cutting a thin line across the back of his left wrist so he could squeeze three drops of his own blood onto Mot’s head. There was no way Mot could have felt them — not drops that small, not through hair as thick as his — but he jerked his head forward with such force that the whole chair scooted an inch. “This isn’t my sort of thing,” Mot said, raising his voice. “Can we please talk about it?”
With blood already spilt, the next step involved fire. Tenzjin plucked a hair from the top of Mot’s head, causing Mot to yelp, and burned it in the candle flame; it made a sickening flesh smell as it blackened and curled. “That can’t be good,” Mot said, his voice rising in pitch with every sentence. “Something’s burning, Tenzjin, I think you need to let me out so I can help you fix it, please let me go, please.” He jerked and the chair rattled.
Instead of stopping, Tenzjin put down the book and opened Mot’s shirt, baring his beautiful chest to the air. The touch seemed to calm Mot for a moment, and he stopped struggling, but the second Tenzjin’s hands were gone, Mot began pleading again. “I don’t think I like this, I don’t, can we just go into your bedroom, please? I want to see you, I want to kiss you, I don’t think I like–”
Whatever else he was going to say disappeared into a gasp as Tenzjin took a bamboo brush with cold, wet ink and drew a dark black line down Mot’s chest. “Please,” Mot whimpered, and the word turned into a sob as Tenzjin continued writing. Six characters, that would be it, and it would be done, and when nothing at all happened after that, Tenzjin could tell himself that there were no such things as demons or monsters or magic, and he could kiss Mot and apologize and claim he’d just been trying out a kink that hadn’t worked, no harm, no foul. Five characters left as he continued, maintaining the cycle of the chant the whole time, then four, and three, and two, and then he was down to one, the simplest of them all, three strokes and he would be finished.
The first two were easy, simple straight lines, but as he lifted the brush for the third and final mark, he noticed several things in succession. The first was that Mot wasn’t speaking any more, not reasoning or pleading or even crying out. He was crying, though, and Tenzjin saw tears rolling out from beneath the white blindfold, staining the fabric dark. Tenzjin saw Mot’s entire body tremble, and another man, a human man, might have been able to wrench his hands free or at least work the blindfold off, but Mot remained in place, struggling but unable to escape.
Finally, Tenzjin stopped to look at his own hands. The cut across his wrist had not stopped bleeding — it was clear now he’d cut far deeper than he’d meant, and now blood ran down and stained the cuff of his left sleeve. His right hand held the brush in a gnarled talon’s grip, clutching it so hard he could no longer feel his fingers. He’d thought he’d been so careful, but he’d gotten ink all over everything: the table, the carpet, his clothes, his skin. His hands were as alien as anything he’d ever seen; they were disconnected, independent, stained, monstrous. Those hands could finish the last character with or without him, but what they might prove….
With a cry he stopped the chant and slapped his hand in the middle of Mot’s chest, then raked it down, leaving red lines from his fingernails and smearing the characters into nonsense. Mot exhaled a ragged sob, but it was one at last of relief, and the muscles in his body went slack. Tenzjin ripped the marked scarves from Mot’s wrists and ankles, though kept the blindfold on as he knelt between Mot’s knees and took Mot’s enormous cock wholly into his mouth. He didn’t stop or come up for air, not even when Mot’s prick grew so hard that it bumped the back of Tenzjin’s throat; he choked and kept on going, forcing himself far past his own comfort point. It was, after all, only fair.
When Mot came at last, Tenzjin swallowed without gagging, and after that yanked the blindfold from Mot’s eyes and kissed him, crawling astride his lap and grabbing at his hair. “I’m sorry,” he gasped against Mot’s mouth. “I’m sorry.”
He expected any number of well-deserved angry reactions, and was at least partly prepared to have his throat ripped out; after all, it would be more than fair. What he didn’t expect was that Mot’s arms would wrap around him, crushing him close and fisting large handfuls of Tenzjin’s shirt. They stayed like that for a long while, making sweaty, bloody, inky messes of themselves, until at last Mot reached for Tenzjin’s left hand and held it tenderly before him, examining the damage. “This … should probably be washed,” Mot said, managing a feeble smile.
“Yes,” Tenzjin nodded, though it had nearly stopped bleeding on its own. “And the rest of you.”
That warmed Mot’s weak smile into an honest one, and Mot nudged Tenzjin off his lap, then stood himself. He was beautiful, Tenzjin had always thought so, but sweet and smart and funny as well, and those qualities were worth more than any measure of how sharp his teeth might be. “I’m sorry,” Tenzjin said again, unable to look Mot in the eye. “I thought it might be nice. And new. But I went too far.”
“It’s all right.” Mot settled his fingers along the line of Tenzjin’s jaw and lifted it so they could see one another; his hands were still trembling, Tenzjin could feel, but his stance was strong and his expression was kind as he brushed the backs of his knuckles along Tenzjin’s cheek, over scarred skin and beneath his empty eye socket. “I’m still here.”
Tenzjin tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a nervous sob; his hand had started to pain him in earnest — how deep had he cut? — and he could feel it throb all through the rest of his body, making him nauseated. “You are.” He took a deep breath and nodded. “I guess we must be stuck with one another.”
“I’d like that.” Mot took Tenzjin’s hand and pressed his lips to the wound, and when he lifted his head again, a streak of red painted his lower lip. “Do you think it will scar?”
“I hope it does,” Tenzjin said, and Mot smiled and led him into the bathroom, as though it were any other day, as though this were any other injury, as though they were anyone other than themselves. They were a fright, the both of them, especially as seen in the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights off the marble and tile, but they were in it together. He shrugged off his clothes, tossing them in a heap on the floor. It was shocking how bright red his own blood was, especially to see it turned and twisted with every move of Mot’s mouth.
Someday he might wake up to find his chest torn open and his entrails spilled out along the bed, or not wake up at all; someday he might misstep in traffic and die when struck by a car; he’d known from a young age never be the type to pass quietly in his sleep or in bed surrounded by his family, so none of the rest of it should be any surprise. It all seemed so barbaric, this ancient animal justice, but in a strange way, it was liberating to know that one day he’d get what he deserved. Mot turned the dials on the shower nozzle until warm water came out and Tenzjin hissed as the water splashed against damaged skin, but he smiled as well, and as the red-tinted stream slithered down toward the dial, Tenzjin felt a great weight carried away with it. He hadn’t realized before just how exhausting it had been to live in a world where men got away with things like selfishness and murder and treason, not until the moment he’d realized that his sins had, in fact, found him out. He would die for his crimes, and that death knelt before him now, bandaging his hand with such gentleness that it might almost be called love, smiling as he circled Tenzjin’s wrist with gauze and taped it shut.
Tenzjin looked from his patched skin to Mot and back again. “You’ve won. I won’t fight.” He clenched his fist, feeling the antiseptic sting beneath the bandage, hurting as it healed. “You’ve got me; I’m yours.”
Mot laughed and shook his head as he stood, carrying the first aid implements back to the medicine cabinet. “For your own sake, I hope that translates to ‘thank you’.”
“You know,” said Tenzjin, shutting his eyes, “it does.”