On weekends, the Timers usually let their iron grip on the city’s internal continuum integrity slacken. They said it was to keep everything from getting wound so tight it exploded. The people said it was because even Timers thought they needed a break. Most disagreed that this was so; after all, it is usually the responsibility of the person who makes the mess to clean it up.
The citizens were advised to stay indoors, and they usually did. People who left the safety of their own roofs tended not to come back. However, as with any general rule, there was at least one famous exception.
Lord Methuselah Montgomery was, so far, the last of his line. To his friends, of which he had few, he was known as Yob; he was the youngest of a large and boisterous family, and they’d called him Boy until he was old enough to object. His father had laughed at the scrap of a lad standing in the middle of his much larger brothers and making demands of them all like he had any way of enforcing their fulfillment.
“What should we call you, then?” the man who, at that time, was still Lord Montgomery said. His youngest child was taken aback. It had been much easier than he’d expected to get his way, though he was not quite young or stupid enough to think that it would have worked if one of them hadn’t let it.
“My name would be favorite,” he managed, though this did nothing but draw in more of the booming laughter by which most of his family was recognized in crowds.
“You haven’t earned your name yet, boyo,” his father said. “But you’re at least smart enough now to see the value of respectful treatment, and brave enough to demand it from stronger men. We can at least see about a new moniker.”
The eldest of his sisters put forth, “Call him Yob. It’s just ‘boy’ backwards; he won’t get any funny ideas about inheriting, but he’ll at least remember the victory.” She’d never liked him much, but he hadn’t liked her either. It was possible she hadn’t been quite so openly cruel as to explain her reasoning so explicitly. It didn’t matter anyway, now. They were all dead. Yob would never earn the right to be called his real name by his family.
The villagers all called him Lord Montgomery–he supposed it gave them some kind of comfort, because he was the only Lord left that anyone was sure of–when they weren’t calling him mad for going out when the Timers shut off the great machines that kept the village and a stripe of the surrounding area anchored in one age. Yob didn’t know, himself, why he did it. It was possible he was looking for a way back to the war that had taken everyone he’d ever loved. An injury gotten from a skittish horse had kept him from going. Now that injury was healed.
He wasn’t trying to save them. There just…didn’t seem to be anything else to do. The Timers had taken over most of the daily managing of affairs, as was their right. He could hardly contest them, even if half the remaining citizens kept giving him significant looks whenever they were mentioned at market. What was now his manor was serving as school, library, and rest home for invalids. The Timers took over the fields he’d once roamed endlessly on horse or foot. There were no duties left that could be done at all effectively by a young lord who’d never been taught lording.
Of course, all those captured by a spirit of ennui are doomed to be broken from it by events they neither expect nor would desire, if they knew what was coming.
It was a walk that began like any other. Yob felt as though he was actually putting his feet in the marks he’d left the week before, though he knew it was ridiculous. He waved politely and as grandly as he could bear to the faces that peeked somewhat anxiously through the curtains. They waved back; someone–the blacksmith–held up a piece of paper and pointed to a place his signature would be needed the following morning. He nodded and tipped his hat to the blacksmith’s wife, but did not stop.
The vicar’s widow was standing, as usual, in her doorway, frowning at him anxiously. Yob had played with her son when they were children. Now she felt responsible for his welfare.
“Please, sir, there’s no need to torture yourself like this,” she pleaded, her arms folded firmly across her narrow waist (he noted to himself that she’d gotten thinner, probably as a result of giving her chickens to those who had truly lost everything, and resolved to mysteriously deliver some more as soon as possible).
Yob smiled as best he could, which was really very well, and responded, “Oh, don’t call me ‘sir,’ or I shall call you ‘madame.’ And as for the torture, I can assure you: this is nothing of the kind. It is merely a walk. Someone must show the world who is still in charge, even when everything seems to have gone mad.”
Nevertheless, she dipped a little curtsy at him before hurriedly ducking back inside as the sky flashed through the rising and setting of the sun. Yob noticed faintly that his old friend was not there. This, too, was not quite strange, though he did feel an even fainter pang of regret that it was so.
He walked further. The path was deceptive; when it hit the boundary, it appeared to stretch on into the distance for miles, just as it had in the old days. No one who had left–and people did go mad and leave, sometimes, simply walking off with goods piled up in a cart behind them as if they were going to market as usual–had ever returned. It was assumed that what the road really did was drop off into nothingness.
Well, it didn’t, of course. But Yob thought it was probably better not to tell anyone that. The Timers thought so, too, with a certain clarity and purpose of mind that was enough to keep him from even considering telling anyone.
He touched the strange pocket watch they’d given him. It was not yet ticking, and would not start to do so until he crossed the boundary. They gave him one hour and one hour only, including the time it took him to walk from the manor to the boundary and back. One hour in which he was guaranteed protection from the random swirls and eddies in time that could (and had) age children to dust and turn elders into children, or, worse, into bloody smears that could not survive without the protection of wombs long dead.
Today he’d done well; he had used only twelve of his minutes and would be able to spend nearly forty in the world beyond. With a deep breath, he jumped through all at once, making sure the whole of his body would pass through at roughly the same time.
The other side seemed to be nothing but a graveyard on that day. It was very old, and the headstones were so worn that he could not read what they might have said, or even guess at what language the inscriptions might have used. A great river surrounded it on all sides. Yob could not see its banks, but that could easily be blamed on the strangely thick fog that lay over everything.
At the graveyard’s center was a slight rise, on which rested a large plinth, on which rested a single prone figure he could barely see in the shadows. The corner of Yob’s brain that never stopped analyzing his situation wondered dispassionately whether this was the future or the past, and of what world.
He began to carefully tread the overgrown grass, trying to avoid walking on any actual graves. When he reached the figure, he noticed with some surprise that it was–well, the only word he could think of was “fresh,” which seemed utterly useless. There were no signs of age or wear on any of the man’s clothes, save a long diagonal cut in the heavily embroidered jacket that had been inexpertly closed. It was definitely a man, as this hole left rather startlingly obvious. His face, too, seemed to be sleeping, rather than dead, if he’d only been breathing. As it was, it seemed as though someone had come to an abandoned graveyard in the middle of a large and probably difficult-to-ford river for the sole purpose of dying there, and as though they’d done so in the past ten minutes.
Yob was mystified, though not as much as he would have been a year before. He’d been stranger places and seen stranger things. And behind him he could still see, thanks somehow to the Timers’ watch, the hazy outline of the boundary between this time and place and that of the one in which he belonged.
If he was stuck on an island for the next half hour, there was nothing to do other than examine the body more closely. The plinth was very deeply carved with a series of rough pictures that looked, like the man himself, much newer than any of the carvings on the surrounding headstones. They were both very simplistic and somehow insistent in a way he hadn’t expected carvings could be. Following their direction, Yob leant over and pressed his lips to those of the corpse before he was quite aware he was planning to do it.
From behind him came a strangled sort of choking noise that he didn’t notice, being otherwise preoccupied.
The kiss–if, Yob thought (a little frantically), it could be called that–lasted longer than he’d intended, and then still longer. He could neither pull himself away or even find the desire to try.
The corpse’s lips were softer than he’d expected. This, too, was noticed by the piece of mind that never shut down.
Suddenly everything happened at once: half-familiar hands seized his shoulders and tried to drag him back; startled, he exhaled, letting out the full breath of air he’d kept in; this seemed to release him, and he fell backwards onto the person who’d grabbed him; and the–whatever he’d just pressed his lips to began to wheeze and, faintly, to tick.
“Are you actually insane,” a voice he recognized better than the hands said in his ear. “I know–we all know–everyone in the village suspects, at least, that you go beyond the boundaries, but–but we thought it was altruism! that you were trying to find a way to save us! Not to–to indulge in forbidden longings in a graveyard, of all places–on consecrated land!–”
“Shut up, shut up!” Yob heard himself saying, though most of the rest of his mind had chosen to stop working. “He’s waking.”
“He?!” the vicar’s son, Gregory, hissed, but fell silent and struggled to his feet as Yob did the same.
The–oh, dear. What Yob had thought was a man and then kissed because some carvings told him to (even in his own mind this seemed less and less like a logical sequence of events) sat up and turned to look at them, slowly blinking his–its–I’ve kissed him, and therefore I get to call him human until he tells me otherwise, Yob thought firmly–golden eyes. Color was returning to his hands and face. A tongue that looked regular enough moistened lips that Yob remembered were well above average in quality.
He spoke. Neither Yob nor Gregory knew what he was saying.
“I’m sorry, we don’t understand you,” Yob said carefully, reaching out to smooth his hair back from his cold forehead in a gesture that had Gregory’s fists clenching in what Yob presumed to be Christian rage. It might also have been a reaction to the fact that Gregory himself had only managed to come up with “What?” to say, which was somewhat less than helpful. “Is there any way we might–is there any help we can give you?”
The stranger licked his lips again, and blinked his eyes. Every muscle in his face seemed to clench and release both individually and very, very quickly, which looked like a series of nervous tremors until it stopped as suddenly as it began. “English?” he tried tentatively, and his voice echoed in pieces of Yob he didn’t know were still there.
Gregory was glaring from one to the other of them. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Yob, but I will punch you myself if you–”
“Gregory, I believe I requested your silence,” Yob said in a voice he did not know was very commanding indeed. Gregory fell silent, looking like he’d been hit. Yob’s attention was focused on the mysterious man his kiss had woken before the words had even finished leaving his mouth. “Yes, we’re English. Where are you from?”
The man seemed to turn inward for a few seconds, as if searching for the answer to that question. “I am from you,” he said carefully, like a person from another land who is not quite sure they have learned the new language properly–which was probably the truth, or very near it. “Your breath brought me back.”
He said it like it was the only possible answer, like it should have been obvious to both of his accidental rescuers. The men themselves stood in stunned silence for a few moments.
Yob thought suddenly of the watch in his pocket, which was probably winding down as they spoke. “Will you come to my home with me?” he asked somewhat more urgently than he intended. “I cannot stay with you long. And you can’t stay here either, not alone among the dead.”
The vicar’s son was slowly turning pale, almost paler than the dead man had been before Yob had woken him. “You will bring this–this creature to our village? To our homes? After all that has happened to us, to the people for whom you are responsible, you would take this risk?”
The man was looking at Yob with golden eyes that seemed to register nothing but Yob’s own face and to have no thought of looking elsewhere. “I will ask you later why you have been following me like a common thief,” he heard himself say, though he regretted it almost instantly. “Help me with him, or don’t come back at all. Least favored or not, I am still the Lord.”
Something of this was too much for Gregory’s pride, but still, it jarred him into action. He roughly grabbed the dead man’s arm and helped Yob haul him to his feet. “May God have mercy,” he muttered under his breath, though he doubted God was listening.
They got him as far as the manor house with few minutes to spare. Gregory spent the rest of the day and most of the next one holed up in the library, not avoiding them, exactly, but not looking forward to their company. Yob explained to the villagers that he’d found his stranger wandering lost just on the inside of the boundary and couldn’t, in good conscience, leave him there. Gregory said nothing.
The next several days passed calmly. The stranger himself didn’t seem to remember anything before Yob had done whatever it was he did, including his name or any simple aspects of his history, such as how he’d ended up alone and comatose in a graveyard. Yob didn’t ask how he’d been woken via kiss. Gregory was the only other one who knew, and he didn’t ask either, though whether it was because he didn’t want to know or because he didn’t want to care was kept between Gregory and his God.
Because of a strange star-shaped tattoo over his heart (which Yob had seen only because he gave the man some new clothes to wear and had had to help him change into them), that was what they called him: Star. It was simple (and, thought Gregory, simple-minded), but there was no other option than to keep calling him “the new man,” which seemed somehow uncharitable.
Star followed Yob around like he was tethered to him by a string no longer than the length of his arm for the first week of his introduction to their small society. The villagers found it charming, though this probably had little to do with anything either of them said or did. This was, after all, the first new face anyone had seen in over a year.
For that time, then, Yob let Star tag along behind him like a younger brother, teaching him about everything he saw–Star was like a child. They blamed it on whatever injuries he’d sustained that had resulted in the condition in which he had been found. Then it was Monday and time for worship–which could not be held on the traditional day, for fear the congregation would not make it either there or home alive–and Star would not enter the church.
They’d missed the first service for obvious reasons. Star hadn’t been able yet to feed himself and had barely seemed to remember how to walk. He’d somehow managed to learn almost everything since then, though he still refused to sleep alone, insisting on curling up next to “his Yob” at night. But, as the technical head of society, it was unthinkable that Yob not attend the weekly Mass. If Yob was going, Star demanded to be allowed to come, too.
This held until they reached the doors of the large stone building. “Does it frighten you?” Yob asked worriedly. Gregory stood in the doorway, waiting for them to enter so he could close it and drop the heavy bar against the accidental coming of intruders.
Star shook his head uncertainly. “The…the bad thing happened,” he stammered, “from this place, I can’t–I can’t!”
Yob hurriedly soothed him with long, even strokes of his hands. “It’s all right,” he said. “I will take you back to the house, then, and return for you when it’s over.”
But Star looked even more terrified at the prospect of being left alone for the two hours of service than he did at that of entering the building at all. He clutched at Yob’s wrists, his eyes wide and pleading. Gregory offered, only a little gracelessly, to make their excuses. “Everyone will understand. The war did terrible things to us all,” he assured the two of them, and so Yob began the walk home.
They were halfway home when Star suddenly seemed to grind to a halt, leaning against a tree and jerkily inhaling draughts of air that did not seem to leave his lungs as they should. Yob hurried to see what was the matter.
“I need,” Star whined, his voice gravelly and strained. “I need–”
His hands on the back of Yob’s neck forced their lips together. Shocked, Yob tried, for a brief second, to pull away; but Star was so much stronger than he’d expected that he was unable. Yob exhaled shakily into the other man’s mouth.
This was the closest they’d been since the kiss that first awoke him. Though they slept in the same bed, it was entirely innocent–what might be expected from a man with a severely traumatizing injury and the person who’d saved his life. Just as Star had snapped from dead to alive in a matter of seconds, it seemed to Yob as though his entire body caught fire in an instant, the simple press of soft lips to his lighting things in him he’d been ignoring since the war ended and made it clear that they could never be.
“Oh,” he said, pulling back to breathe as calmly as he could, “oh, you–” and Star pulled him down again, tracing Yob’s lips with his tongue and plunging into his mouth with a kind of desperation.
Yob lunged back, licking his way past Star’s teeth and into the mouth behind them. Star sucked almost violently on his tongue. One of them moaned. He came back to himself enough to realize that one of his hands was tangled in Star’s hair, the other shoved under his vest, pulling his shirt up just enough to trace the vertebrae at the base of Star’s spine. He dug his fingers in and was gratified when the smaller man shivered and made another sound, this one going straight to his groin like a shock.
Star’s lips trailed up his jaw to his ear and whispered “I need you” in his almost childlike voice, though the innocence of it was belied by the following wet, sucking kisses placed just behind the lobe and down his neck. Yob stumbled back and almost fell.
“Here?” he asked, his voice cracking a little at the sight before him. Star’s pupils were dilated almost the entire circumference of his irises. His hair and shirt could be no more mussed than Yob’s own, based on the similar actions of their hands. Yob swallowed the other man’s taste in his mouth and shivered.
“Please,” Star said, his speech a breathy catch, his hips rolling up into Yob’s with a pressure that was almost enough, “no one will come, I need you.” Yob was lost.
Star wound his fingers around the collar of Yob’s coat and forcibly traded their places, pushing Yob inexorably into the tree trunk at the side of the road. His mouth was back on the side of Yob’s throat, somehow still cool and soft and impossibly hungry, scraping teeth over his pulse, unfastening the collar from his shirt to toss it somewhere behind them. His fingers scrabbled at Yob’s vest, unbuttoning it carefully and pushing it off with the coat, letting it lie crumpled practically under their feet on the grass.
The shirt followed. Yob remembered, just in time, that grass stains would be even more difficult to explain on a white shirt than on a morning coat, and pulled himself far enough back to pull it over his head, draping it carefully over a nearby branch.
When he turned back, Star’s eyes were fixed to the muscles of his chest, still hungry. He reached for Yob’s waist and slammed him back again into the tree. They landed so that one of his thighs was between both of Yob’s, hitting his cock with exactly the right pressure. It was Yob that moaned this time. Judging by the way Star immediately thrust his hips forward again, he did it rather well.
It should not be said that Yob knew nothing about this. He’d been sent away to school, of course–even the youngest son of a minor lord received a more-than-decent education, and boys will be boys. In his last year Yob had himself been a boy at least three times a week with the headmaster’s nephew. But this–there was urgency in this, and lust, and nothing of the clumsy eager fumbling that Stevens had worked with.
Hazy with these memories, Yob failed to realize for almost a minute that Star had slid down his body to the grass, kneeling before him like a supplicant. He undid the laces to Yob’s pants and drew him out with fingers that were cool enough to force another pleasured shiver down Yob’s spine.
“Pay attention,” Star chided breathily, still with that strange cadence–the cadence that never left his voice–and because of it, Yob almost remembered something, but then Star took a first coy lick at the head and after that he could barely remember his own name.
He lost track of time. One of Star’s hands kept tracing the trail of hair that led down his stomach, occasionally wandering back up to tease one of Yob’s nipples or scratch delicately at his stomach. The other hand squeezed somehow into the back of his pants and fought the pressure of the tree to squeeze his ass. And then, finally, when Yob was swearing in languages he was sure he didn’t know, Star swallowed him all the way down to the root.
The mouth that surrounded him was almost chilled. Their eyes met, Star’s filled with the same sort of naivete they had been since their first meeting despite what he was doing–and, as he proceeded to prove, knew very well. Star swallowed, the muscles of his throat tightening almost more than he could stand, and again, and again. The hand on his buttocks inched further and further down to tease delicately at his opening. The other slid up to pluck expertly at his already overstimulated nipple, and then Yob saw white and felt his knees give out.
When he came to, he was shackled to a wall with a gag between his teeth.
Gregory ran over the hill as fast as he could. The manor spread before him; usually solid and comforting, but today he barely saw it.
“Yob is sick,” Star had said, his eyes huge in his pale face. “He’s calling for you, I don’t know what’s wrong, you have to help me,” all in the same rhythm in which he said anything. Gregory hadn’t bothered to ask what the other man’s symptoms had been; he just burst out of the house and ran, ignoring his mother calling words of advice after him.
He hadn’t seen Yob for days. This was common, though; Yob was an excellent lord, but sometimes the pressures of the duties that were now entirely on his young shoulders became too much for him, and he would spend days locked away in his study. He used to bring Gregory with him. Gregory had merely assumed he’d been replaced.
Yob’s pet beat him to the door, somehow, and held it open before him. “He fell in the drawing room,” Star said, and Gregory managed to slow himself down enough to keep from breaking any of the thousand expensive trinkets that still clustered on tiny end tables practically every five feet of his way there.
Star followed directly on his heels, close enough to keep him from leaving as soon as he reached the room and found it empty. The door closed behind them with a distinct click of the lock sliding into the frame.
“What are you playing at, man?” Gregory asked unsteadily. “Tell me where–where Yob is, I can’t–”
“Yob is fine,” Star said soothingly. But Gregory was not soothed. “You are his best friend.”
Gregory recoiled in vague disgust. “He’s ill! You told me so yourself! Take me there now!”
But Star did not reply, merely looking at him like he was the most interesting thing in the world. It was the way he looked at Yob. Gregory’s hands clenched into fists of their own accord.
“Does he love you?” Star asked, his voice smooth and measured, and Gregory let himself imagine what it would be like to break the never-ending cadence of that stupid voice, and to break the neck from which it issued.
He swallowed instead. “Of course he does, we’ve been friends since we were children.” Somehow, he regained at least a little composure, using it to smooth back the hair that had fallen into his face and straighten the chain of his watch. “Did you really frighten me all the way here so we could discuss my friendship with your–” and he stopped.
Star smiled, then, and it was the smile of someone who has had a great victory. “Your friendship with my lover,” he purred.
Gregory’s blood felt as though it were literally freezing. He had always wondered what that might be like and thought, inanely, that at least some academic curiosity might be satisfied by whatever other horrors would come of this twisted conversation. “Your lover?” he attempted. “That is–that is against the laws of man and God. I refuse to believe Yob would ever demean himself so.”
“Of course you believe it,” Star replied. “But you wish it was you.”
The only sound in the room was the tick of the grandfather clock in the corner.
Gregory could not breathe. He could not move. He had been leaning forward to begin leaving the room, by force, if necessary, and now thought he might fall.
“You cannot know this,” he managed. “How–how dare you–”
Star’s laugh was chillingly precise. “How dare I? How dare you, to lust after a man so obviously claimed by another? He woke me with his love, and you still think he is yours to claim?”
“Of course not,” Gregory said, and his voice was a little stronger now, because this was true. “Of course I could not claim the Lord of my village for my own. He is my friend, and nothing more.”
By rights, that should have been the end of it. Had Star been at all a gentleman he would have let Gregory go. But he was not, and Gregory remained frozen there, unable to force his feet to carry him as far away as he could get–which would not have been far enough.
“I see how you look at him, your eyes full of desire,” Star hissed, “how you watch his every gesture, every movement–I know what you dream about, Gregory Lecks, every secret in your tiny, stupid mind. I know.”
He went on and on, listing Gregory’s faults, every time he had unwittingly given himself away. Even his attempts to distance himself from the pair of them when Yob had increasingly come to prefer his new companion’s company had been noticed, and analyzed, and categorized by that new man. Gregory could not even begin to defend himself. Again his eyes fell on the clock, as if wishing time would move faster if he stared it down.
The pendulum did not swing.
He stuck his fingers in his ears, ignoring Star’s immediate insult–“oh, and now you cannot even face your accuser like a man, cowering infant”–and stared at it, trying to be sure. The ticking continued when he removed them.
Star’s voice went on and on, the rhythmic gibes unceasing.
“Oh, you’re very good,” Gregory breathed, standing to his full height at last. Star fell silent, his face emotionless.
From his pocket Gregory removed a strange-looking device, a sort of miniature brass dart gun almost entirely encased in very complicated machinery. Star seemed to flinch.
“What are you doing, Gregory?” he pleaded, his voice returning to the needy, breathy one he’d used to ensnare Yob’s mind. “What are you going to do to me?”
Gregory made a disparaging noise. “Oh, little one,” he said. “If you were anything other than what you are, you wouldn’t even know what this is.”
Star twitched, just a little, the muscles of his face tensing all at once. The tick was taken up by his right shoulder, moving down to his hand almost faster than the eye could follow–but still not fast enough. Before he could use whatever his final defense was on his enemy, Gregory was already exhaling into the part of the device that faced him. The mist raced across the scant few feet between them and Star could not help but breathe it in.
There was a great crunching noise, as though a thousand tiny gears had suddenly ground together. The ticking stopped. So did Star.
Gregory ran from the room, dropping the strange device back in his pocket as he went.
It had been some time. Yob didn’t know how much. The small, high windows of the dungeon faced the Timers’ fortress, and the lights there never went out, so Yob could not even rely on the changes in daylight. He thought it had been at least three days based on how hungry he was.
To pass the time, he wondered what Star was until that got boring. It wasn’t like he could do anything to find out, and somehow the draw of him–whatever it was that had kept him trapped at the younger man’s side–was gone.
He wasn’t terribly worried, except that he might catch some kind of disease from the dirty floors and the lack of warmth. Yob was the Lord of the village, after all, and someone would surely find him eventually, if only because they needed his approval of some minuscule change to the school or planting schedule. He could tell the Timers, and they would take care of it the way they took care of everything else that wandered in unannounced.
Then he thought about his father and his brothers and the war. And then, when nothing else was working, and he’d run out of inanities, and he realized that the house was so large and the keys to the dungeon so long lost (how, again, had Star opened the doors? Well, it didn’t matter) that he might never be found, he let himself think about his friend the vicar’s son. The vicar’s son with his amber hair and his stupid green eyes that seemed so often lately to be angry with him. He’d fix that, if–when he got out.
“Gregory,” he muttered, licking at his lips reflexively as if that would make him less thirsty.
There was a strange sort of breeze and a thunderclap, and Gregory was there.
“Oh thank god, I thought you might never–if you never said anyone’s name, I mean, that’s how we track you, I’ve got a signal on you forever, and if you say my name I can always, always find you–”
And Gregory was talking, but Yob couldn’t quite care that he couldn’t quite focus on the words. He reached for him and frowned when his arms did not respond.
Immediately Gregory was kneeling at his side, swearing under his breath about what would be done to the person who had put him here. “You’re an illusion,” Yob said calmly, because, well, it was a logical progression after three days without water. “So you won’t mind if I’m in love with you, which is excellent. If I’m going to die, I’d like you to stick around, please.”
The Gregory-dream froze. He’d already unlocked the shackles, though, and Yob’s arms fell into his lap, where they lay like dead things. His shoulders felt like they were being carved away with splinters of glass. He thought he might have screamed, and then he thought he might have passed out, but he couldn’t force himself to mind, because if Gregory hadn’t been a figment of his imagination then everything was ruined, and that was probably worse than being dead. Fewer angels were likely to be involved in the former case.
When he woke, though, he was in his own bed, and Gregory was slouched in a chair he must have dragged in from the sitting room, by the pattern. The other man sat up with a start. “Thank god,” he said immediately, blinking and shaking his head like he hadn’t done either of those things for hours. “They thought–well, they said it might be longer than this.”
Yob tried to speak, but he had no voice. Gregory immediately lunged for the large pitcher of water on the night table and helped him to sit and drink it. His arm on Yob’s back was strong and sure.
“What happened?” he finally croaked. Gregory winced a little and helped him to lie down again.
“It’s sort of a long story,” he said evasively. “It can wait until you’re stronger, if you like.”
“No,” Yob said. “It can’t. How long have I been asleep?”
“You’ve been missing for a week. There’s food, if you think you’re ready for it.”
He could see Gregory swallow and almost regretted it, but he had to know. Star had done impossible things and been false. Gregory had done even more impossible things. Yob had to know if that meant anything.
“You remember the war,” Gregory said finally, stiffly, like he was filtering out a longer, more frantic speech into something easier for both of them. “When the–when it started, before you came back from that–school of yours–you were never told how long it had been happening here, were you? You assumed, and probably you could guess; but I wonder if you ever did.”
He paused to give Yob time to answer. Yob said nothing. “Well. It happened just six months after you left,” Gregory said, and stopped again, passing a hand over his eyes and sinking back into the chair. Yob carefully reached for the other that was still on the counterpane. The other man drew back in surprise, but Yob followed him until he gave his hand freely, something like wonder in his eyes.
“Um. The Timers came, after awhile. They showed up in great airships just like the ones that had held the first soldiers and went immediately to talk to your father. We thought they were the enemy too, at first, but it didn’t matter, and our weapons didn’t work on them, but they still punished us for it in their way.”
He said the rest of it in a rush, as if that would make it better:
The visible soldiers of the enemy had been merely a distraction from their real purpose, and it had worked. No one had known until the Timers came with their strange machines and their scanning devices the myriad tiny ways in which their loved ones had changed. And why would they, in a war zone? How could they really be blamed for it?
It was as though for every soldier they’d managed to eliminate one of their own had been taken in the night, replaced with a body that looked and felt just the same but was nothing more than a series of gears, initiated by steam. People had begun to drunk tea in large quantities for the excuse to breathe in the hot vapor, but others were doing so to remain calm. Some became more affectionate to steal breath; some had already done so on fear of death. It was almost impossible to tell the difference between one of the enemy’s hidden warriors, ready to turn on them at a moment’s notice, and the people they loved and were trying to protect. Maybe the mechanisms themselves didn’t know.
“Your father,” Yob interrupted, squeezing their interlaced fingers without a thought. “I’m so sorry, I never dreamed–”
“No, you couldn’t have,” Gregory hastened to reassure him. “No one did. We’ve barely got trains; they were from so far in the future they could actually do this. You saw the airships. We–the Timers–cut one of them open in hopes it would give us something to use against them, and they actually seemed to bleed, even though it was only red oil. The attention to detail was terrifying.
“And then you came home–you’ll probably remember most of this, but I think you were far too busy to notice, and most people were. The Timers asked for operatives to spy on the enemy; I became one, because when you got back you–” He broke off and pulled his hand away, remembering.
Yob said softly, “I wouldn’t even look at you. I didn’t dare, didn’t you know? Everything I knew was gone, and you’d grown up so much since I’d last been home–you were a soldier, strong and brave and–and necessary to everyone, and I’ve always been the skinny, useless one.”
“And you were suddenly in charge of everything, with your fathers and brothers gone to the front around the main city and your sisters all nurses in the hospitals in the field,” Gregory said. “I understand. But I loved you, and to be in a world with no use to you made me determined to be useful somewhere else. So I joined them.”
“This story really is quite long,” Yob murmured shyly, except that when he tried to murmur his still-dry throat gave a sound like about twelve frogs vying over the same mate. Nevertheless, he persevered: “I think it might be better told in a more prone position, if you are amenable.”
Gregory looked at him with an eyebrow raised teasingly. “Excuse me, my lord?”
Yob swatted at him and tried to slide over to make room on the side nearest his dearest friend. “Shut up and get in my bed.”
In a trice Gregory obeyed, removing his shoes and leaving them with his coat and vest on the chair. He somehow managed to clear Yob and land on his far side in a large awkward leap. The bed shook with the force of his landing and Yob’s ensuing laughter.
“We’re not likely to get much talking done,” Gregory said when they’d both managed to stop laughing. His eyes were full of heat, but his voice was quiet–a hope, as opposed to a promise.
“God, I sincerely hope not,” Yob started to say, but then Gregory’s lips were in the way and he found himself perfectly content to say nothing at all. Well, nothing coherent, at any rate.
Sometime the next day, after Gregory had helped him eat and forced him to drink what felt like his weight in water, Yob insisted on being shown the place Star still lay.
The body on the floor was very much as it had been when Yob first saw it. He looked asleep, not dead; but his chest still didn’t move, and when Gregory toed at his right arm, Yob saw that it was halfway transitioned between a human hand and some kind of weapon like the ones the Timers had handed out midway through the war. Like the ones the enemy had used.
The rhythm in his voice: they’d explained it away as part of whatever trauma Star had suffered, but it was obvious now. The way his skin was always cool and the way even the inside of his mouth had been the same temperature. Even the way he’d begun speaking immediately in a different language when he first woke up–switched on, rather. It was a machine, not a man.
“The Timers gave me–gave all of us, really, all the field agents, I’m not the only one but I can’t tell you who the others are, it’s safer if none of us are quite sure about the rest of us–a weapon of last resort.” He took it out of his pocket to show Yob and resumed babbling. “There’s a gas in this, heated up by the steam in breath just like he was–I blow in through here, it goes shooting out through there, the machine breathes it in and it reacts with the metal in them, something like that, to form a solid. Their pump stops working and they can’t move, and if they can’t move, they shut off.”
Gregory seemed nervous, and Yob wasn’t sure why. “He had a–I don’t even know what to call it; it was like a glamor from a fairy tale,” Yob said, trying to explain how this had happened. “I couldn’t see anything but him, and I couldn’t realize how strange that was, because…” And he only managed to continue because Gregory still held himself very still, as if afraid he would be punished for killing Yob’s erstwhile lover instead of praised for saving all their lives.
Yob looked at him until he looked unwillingly back. “Because normally, all I see is you,” he said, quietly but firmly. “Thank you.”
Gregory searched his eyes and then smiled the way he had when they were very young children and Yob had told him in the same serious voice that he was Yob’s best friend. “Any time,” he replied, and took Yob’s hand.
They locked the door behind them.