by Tamari Erin (玉里えりん)
Only one of the beds in the infirmary was occupied, at the very far end of the ward. The curtains were drawn around the bed, and a lone medic stood in wait outside.
Darael stomped moodily three paces behind Commander Nigellus as they walked down the row of empty beds. He kept his cloak pulled tightly around him and stared down at Nigellus’ heels, his expression carefully blank. A muscle jumped sporadically at the corner of his jaw. The infirmary was windowless and grey. Nigellus and Darael’s dark blue uniforms were the only colour in the claustrophobic space.
Nigellus’ long strides took them quickly to the end of the ward. His bootheels rang out against the tile floor in a steady rhythm syncopated by Darael’s hurried pace.
Nigellus nodded to the medic once they reached her side and she replied with a stiff salute. Her pale grey uniform was wrinkled and there were lines of exhaustion on her face. Nigellus threw a glance over his shoulder at Darael, who gave her a strained smile.
“Nurse,” he said.
“Adjunct,” she replied, in a bland tone, and turned her attention back to Nigellus. “Sir,” she said, “through here.” She pulled the curtains back and motioned them inside.
Darael faltered at the sight of the limp, pallid figure on the hospital bed.
The curtains fell shut behind them, and the nurse moved to stand at the patient’s left. Darael remained by the curtain’s edge, his mouth a hard line.
Nigellus strode to the other side of the bed and his gaze fell on the steady, blinking lights of the monitoring equipment. He sighed softly and turned back to face the others. “Nurse Aquila, if you would care to fill my adjunct in on the patient’s condition?”
The nurse picked up the patient’s chart and she nodded crisply. “Of course, sir.” She looked over at Darael, who seemed transfixed by the patient. “Major Tarquil reported that after Second Lieutenant Simenon missed his second morning briefing in a row, he entered the lieutenant’s quarters to find him unconscious on the floor–”
“Tarquil found him?” Darael interrupted. “But he has a clanker. Why didn’t that bloody thing let anyone know he was–” He clamped his mouth shut suddenly.
“We questioned the clanker,” Aquila said, “but Second Lieutenant Simenon had given it explicit orders not to fetch help, and we believe that up until the morning Major Tarquil found him he was still aware enough to continue to reinforce the order. Clankers are programmed not to go against their owner’s commands unless they believe lives are at stake, and until Major Tarquil found him, Second Lieutenant Simenon wouldn’t have appeared sick enough for the clanker to countermand his orders.”
“Idiot,” Darael muttered. His fingers curled around the bottom hem of his cloak.
Aquila ignored him and continued. “He’s been unresponsive since we found him and his vitals have steadily gotten worse over the past few days.”
Darael jerked his chin up. “There’s a flu going around camp. He caught it. That’s it. Why all this fuss?”
“He doesn’t have the flu,” Aquila said tartly. “We’ve taken cultures and run tests, several times for many of them. The results are always negative. There’s nothing physically wrong with him. He should be fine, but he’s not. Whatever is causing this is not something that can be treated with medicine.”
“Ah,” Darael said.
Nigellus looked over at him. “Please understand that I have to ask this–”
“I didn’t do this. It wasn’t me.” He shook back his long black hair. “Making people waste away just isn’t my style.”
Aquila tutted under her breath.
Darael’s head snapped up and he glared in her direction.
“The two of you have a known animosity, and Second Lieutenant Simenon has made his dislike of you quite clear. It’s a logical conclusion to draw.”
Nigellus raised a hand in appeasement. “Not now, you two. Aquila, how much longer do you think he has?”
She gave a one-shouldered shrug. “It’s hard to say. If the pattern of progression remains constant, I’d give him a few weeks, maybe a month. Or if he suddenly takes a turn for the worse, he could be gone in a day or two. There’s no way to know.”
“Thank you. I know you’ve done all you could.”
Darael had turned his attention back to Simenon’s still form. A faint crease appeared in his brow as he frowned.
Aquila watched Darael. “Is that all, Commander?”
“Yes, Nurse. Thank you. We’ll call for you if we need any medical assistance.”
She sketched a brisk salute, set Simenon’s file back down on his bed, and edged past Darael out through the curtains.
When the clicking of her heels on the floor was no longer audible, Darael slumped heavily on the bed and crossed his arms. He sat so he faced away from Simenon and stared at the unmoving curtains surrounding the bed. “So he’s going to die.” He raised his head so he met Nigellus’ impassive gaze. Darael’s eyes were hard. “So. What.”
Nigellus chuckled softly. “If he dies, Dara, there will be an investigation.”
“No, there won’t!” Darael made a scoffing noise. “There never is. We’re off in the Outmarches, and no one cares if some idiot gets himself killed out here.”
Nigellus folded his arms and looked down, eyes hooded and a brittle smile on his face. He was silent for a long moment. “But someone will care if Simenon dies. A very powerful someone.”
“His mother’s sister is the Senator Biatha. She sits on the Senate committee for the armed forces.”
Darael blanched. “Oh no.” He looked over his shoulder at Simenon. “He told me. That’s how he got out here. She pulled strings for him. He bragged about it!”
“Well, we should forgive him for that, he is young. But if the Senator’s nephew dies, she will want to know why. And if she pushes for it, there will be an investigation. And she will push for it.”
Darael stared down at the floor, hands clamped over his mouth. “I’ll run,” he said, voice muffled and unnaturally high. “Or we’ll lie to them. Or… or…”
Nigellus pursed his lips. “They’ll get you. Again.”
Behind his hands, Darael whimpered. “No.”
“And I won’t be there this time to save you.” Nigellus shrugged. “But maybe you’ll be lucky again. You usually are. And maybe it won’t take five years before someone rescues you.”
Darael put his face in his hands and was silent for a long time. When he finally looked back up at Nigellus, his eyes were dry and cold. “Fine. I’ll do it. I’ll save his damn life.”
Nigellus nodded thoughtfully. “Good. Thank you.”
Darael jabbed a finger at Simenon’s face. “But you don’t tell him. He is not to find out what I did.”
“Fair enough. I’ll leave you to it. Good luck.” He walked past Darael and out through the curtains without a second glance. Darael jerked up his chin with a sneer at Nigellus’ departing form.
He tapped an uneven rhythm on the floor and then jumped to his feet. Darael circled the bed, watching Simenon all the while. He ignored the monitors and shoved his chart onto the floor. On his second pass around the bed he reached out and trailed his fingers down one of Simenon’s arms and then up the other.
He continued doing this with each pass, letting his fingers skip from freckle to freckle up and down Simenon’s bare arms. His freckles seemed especially dark against the paleness of his skin.
Darael came to a stop at the foot of the bed and clambered up to sit on Simenon’s feet. He pulled down the covers and set about undressing him. His hands trailed almost possessively over Simenon’s body as he stripped him out of his pajamas.
He stayed silent as he did this and his face was utterly expressionless.
When he liberated Simenon of his shirt and tossed it to the floor, Darael spread his hands over Simenon’s chest and let out a deep breath. Darael bent his head and trailed a path up Simenon’s chest with his tongue, drawing a jagged line by connecting his freckles together. He stopped when he reached Simenon’s collarbone and looked up, the faintest light of hope in his eyes.
But Simenon was still and unmoving, his face as slack as it had been moments before.
Darael’s shoulders slumped. He gave one of Simenon’s nipples a hard tweak, and smirked when that got a whimper in response. He pinched the other nipple until Simenon’s mouth fell open and he moaned.
Darael made a pleased noise. “Good to know there’s at least something still in there.” He twisted both nipples at the same time, one clockwise, one widdershins, and wrenched a wonderful noise from Simenon. His mouth curled up in a delighted smile.
Simenon’s nipples were starting to look a bit red. Darael bent down and swirled his tongue around one and then the other. He left a trail of kisses up to Simenon’s collarbone and slumped down on the hospital bed beside him, one hand still idling with Simenon’s right nipple.
“Mmm,” he said, “you still taste so good, my dear sweet Sim. I’d love to give you a little present, give you some pretty rings to decorate your pretty nips.” He propped himself up on his elbow. “I’d love to see your face when you wake up to find that surprise.” He squeezed tightly on the nipple between his fingers until he saw sweat bead on Simenon’s forehead. “Oh, you’d be shocked at first, and so angry, but I think you’d very quickly grow to enjoy your new toys. I think you’d have a lot of fun.” He leaned in to Simenon’s ear. “I think you might even let me play with them.”
But Darael’s smile quickly faded and he let his hand drop back down onto the bed.
He sighed and sat up, and moved to take off Simenon’s pajama bottoms. He undid the drawstring and pulled them down in a single motion.
Something caught his eye as he tossed them on the floor.
Something on Simenon’s thigh.
Darael let out a noise like a muffled scream and fell off the bed. When he rose to his feet, his face was a rictus of fury. His eyes darted from the mark to Simenon’s face and back again and again and again in sharp jerky motions like an animal. He was breathing loudly through his still-open mouth.
With one final look at the scar on Simenon’s leg, he stormed out of the infirmary, leaving the curtains around Simenon’s bed wide open.
Darael didn’t stop moving until he had reached a small hill just outside of camp. He stood atop the hill and stared up at the evening sky, still breathing heavily, two red spots high on his cheeks.
He threw his arms wide, threw his head back, and screamed until the night shook.
High above him, clouds poured in over the camp, swirling like a cyclone until they reached a critical mass and a thunderclap echoed across the desert.
Darael screamed again as it began to rain.
He was instantly drenched as water poured down over him, the camp, and everything else within miles.
Darael sunk to his knees and slammed his fists against the ground, his screams drowned out by the rain.
The storm raged for hours before Nigellus finally came looking for him.
He wore a hooded oilcloth cloak as he walked up the hill to where Darael still knelt. He stood beside him until Darael looked up at him, his jaw clenched and his eyes alit with fury.
“Come on,” Nigellus shouted over the rain, and motioned him upward.
Darael acquiesced after a long pause, and together they walked back into camp. Nigellus lead Darael to his tent, where he raised the entry flap and motioned him inside. The sentries standing guard watched them as they entered.
Nigellus hung up his cloak, and Darael stood in the centre of the sitting room, dripping silently on the floor. His face was still twisted with fury and he stared down at the patterns the water was making on the rugs.
“How long is this going to last?” Nigellus said after an uncomfortably long pause.
Darael raised his head and bared his teeth. “I don’t know and I don’t care.”
Nigellus sighed. “Dara. We aren’t equipped for this–”
“Someone branded him.”
Nigellus blinked slowly. “Excuse me?”
Darael stalked his way over to stand directly in front of Nigellus. Hi face was pale and the downpour had made his long hair straggly. His eyes burned with a bright, mad light. “Someone branded him. He has a mark on his leg.”
“A mark,” Nigellus repeated.
“Yes,” Darael hissed. “It’s one of the atavist languages, I don’t know which one.”
“Atavist…” Nigellus began, looking thoughtful. “That’s strange, Simenon hasn’t been part of any of our run-ins with the atavists. Except… Hmm.”
“What?” Darael snapped.
“He was part of a patrol that had a run-in with a small band of atavists, but that was months ago. He was separated from the patrol group and while he didn’t report any encounters… Do you think it’s the source of his illness? Could they have cursed him somehow?”
Darael threw up his arms. “I don’t know,” he snapped. “I didn’t exactly stop to examine it. I saw it and I… I lost myself.” He let his arms fall back to his sides.
Nigellus gave him a thoughtful look. “Really,” he said.
Darael shoved his damp hair out of his face and exhaled sharply. “Someone marked him. He was mine and someone marked him. They had no right to lay a finger on him!” he bellowed.
Nigellus only blinked in reply.
“He was mine,” Darael finished, in a sullen, quiet tone. He put his face in his hands.
Nigellus watched him. “Come here,” he finally said, drawing Darael over to a roughly-arranged circle of cushions on the floor. “Let’s get you out of those wet things.”
Darael shrugged off his sodden cloak and let Nigellus pull off his uniform jacket and his linen undershirt.
“I’ll be back in a moment with something for you to wear,” Nigellus said as he stepped through the curtains separating the sitting room from his bed chamber.
Darael unbuckled his kilt in silence and threw it on top of the rest of his ruined clothes. He wiped at his face and sunk down onto one of the cushions on the floor, where he struggled to pull off his boots.
He finally had them removed when Nigellus returned, holding a striped shirt from a set of pajamas. He handed it to Darael, who slid it on with a grateful sigh. The shirt was long enough to come to mid-thigh on Darael.
Nigellus sat down on another cushion so he faced Darael.
Darael stared first at his hands and then looked over at the pile of wet clothing.
“I’ll have Yonge come and take care of that,” Nigellus said.
“He won’t like it,” Darael said softly.
“I don’t care if he likes it or not, he still has to do it.”
“It used to be my job, and I didn’t like it either.”
Nigellus laughed heartily. “Oh, you were a terrible assistant. ”
“Everyone thought I got the job because I was sleeping with you.”
“Little did they know.”
Darael huffed in reply.
“So,” Nigellus began.
“So,” Darael replied.
“I never thought I’d see the day. You, in love.”
Darael laughed hollowly. “I’m not– With him? Nigellus, he is an idiot, an overly romantic fool, and a child. I’m not in love with him.”
“We both know you wouldn’t react this way if anyone else came back branded by the atavists.”
Nigellus shook his head with a laugh. “No, not even me. Oh, you’d be angry, I have no doubt of that, but furious enough to summon a monsoon over half the desert? No. Not even for me. But Simenon is different.”
“Does he know? He doesn’t know, does he?”
“What do I say to him? What would I say to him that he would believe?”
“Tell me,” Nigellus said, his voice gentle.
Darael let out a ragged breath. “He was kind, and gentle…”
“That could describe anyone.”
“He was chivalrous. He was a chivalrous bloody idiot. Do you know he had been planning on deserting the Company, to save me?”
Nigellus sat back. “No, you’ve not told me this before. Huh.”
“He didn’t try to fuck me, or even kiss me, not at first. He wanted me to be safe. He thought I deserved to be happy. We’d only just met and he was willing to throw his life away to save me.” Darael suddenly scrubbed furiously at his face with his fists. “No one–” Darael’s voice cracked. “There hasn’t been anyone like him before. I’ve never met anyone like him.”
“Oh, Dara.” Nigellus’s voice was heavy with sadness.
“There’s no one else like him. And I ruined it.” Darael looked away.
They sat in silence as the rain continued to hammer on the tent, and then Nigellus rose to his feet. The pit fire had gone out from the rain, so he set a kettle on a hot plate and made them both hot toddies while Darael sat and stared at the floor, his eyes distant.
He took the drink silently when Nigellus offered it to him and set it down beside his cushion.
Nigellus waited for his to cool a bit before taking a sip.
“Nothing is ruined as long as you’re both still alive.”
Darael laughed hollowly. “He hates me so much he can’t stand to be in the same room as me.”
Nigellus hummed and took another sip of his drink.
Darael dragged his fingers through his hair. “How do I fix this? Nigellus, how do I make him love me?”
Nigellus shook his head. “I wish I could give you an answer, Dara, but I don’t know. I don’t know Simenon well enough to know what it would take. But…”
Darael’s head shot up “But?”
“I don’t how or even if you can fix things with him, but I know you cannot fix anything if he’s dead.”
Darael sniffled and wiped at his face. “I don’t even know what’s wrong with him. I don’t know if I can cure it.”
Nigellus rolled his eyes. “You haven’t even tried. Don’t wait for the rain to abate. Take my cloak, get your spare uniform, and go fix your man.”
It was past midnight when Darael returned to the infirmary, swanning past the night nurse into the ward where Simenon was being kept.
The curtains around his bed were as Darael had left them, and Simenon was naked and still on his bed. The lights were low, and the glow of the monitors cast the two of them in strange colours.
The first thing Darael did was press his hand against the atavist mark on Simenon’s thigh. When he pulled his hand back the letter was gone, and Simenon’s skin was smooth and unmarked.
Darael stood at Simenon’s side, held his hands about a foot above Simenon’s feet and slowly brought them up his body to the crown of his head. He started moving them back down again, and stopped, frowning, at Simenon’s waist.
Darael scowled and scooped up Simenon’s pale, limp hands in his. He stared at them in the faint lights from the monitors, let the right one fall back down on the bed, and traced his fingers over a row of pinpricks on his palm and on the back of his hand.
“Hell,” he whispered. “I know what did this.”
The rains had stopped by dawn, and that was when Darael set out from the infirmary.
He prowled around the edges of the camp for a few hours, sticking to the less-trafficked areas of the camp, until he found animal tracks in the still-damp sand.
He grinned as he followed them to his quarry, and snuck up on the beast handily.
It had found a hiding spot by the Quartermaster’s tent, and Darael spotted it and snatched it up by the scruff before the beast could even react.
It was a desert cat and Darael held it up so he could stare into its eyes. “Look at you,” he said, “all fat from the essence you’ve been siphoning off of my– off of Simenon. We can’t have that, now can we?”
The beast mewled plaintively at him before Darael snapped its neck.
Darael dropped the animal corpse on the low desk in Nigellus’ sitting room.
Nigellus raised his pen, blinked, and then looked up at Darael, eyes narrowing. “What is this?” he asked.
Darael grinned viciously. “That is what’s been killing Simenon.”
“It’s a cat.”
“It is a cat, but it’s a magic cat. They’re not usually found this far into the desert, it must have come along with the last convoy. Simenon had a bite mark on his hand, from this thing.”
Nigellus raised an eyebrow. “And it, what, drained his, I don’t know, life energy through that from a distance.”
Darael nodded. “Exactly that. They’re nasty things, it’s a good thing we caught it before it moved on to anyone else.”
“I’m surprised no one noticed a cat lurking around the camp. Where did you find it?”
“By the Quartermaster’s. And no one would have seen it, their magic makes them invisible to normal eyes.”
Nigellus set down his pen and rubbed his eyes. “And if we hadn’t had you… It would have worked its way through the entire camp.”
Darael shrugged. “Or gotten bored and moved on after a few deaths.”
“Good,” he said, “good, well done. How soon will Simenon be making his recovery?”
Darael made a face and rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t work like that. It’s a one-way process, it’s not going to flow back into him. The… energy that was stolen is going to need to be replaced.”
“Replaced,” Nigellus repeated, his expression skeptical. “And how are you going to go about doing that?”
Darael leered down at him. “Oh, I have my ways…”
Darael returned to the infirmary, a bottle of expensive lubricant in his hands. He ignored the stares of the medics as he strutted into the sick ward.
When he reached Simenon’s bed, he drew the curtains shut around the two of them.
Simenon had been re-dressed since the last time Darael had been in the infirmary, and this time Darael didn’t bother stripping Simenon down. He clambered onto the bed and pulled down just the sheets and Simenon’s pajama pants.
He tilted his head to the side and smiled down at Simenon’s flaccid cock. He stroked his fingers down its length and smirked as it twitched in response.
“Not today, I’m afraid,” he whispered a bit sadly.
The bottle of lubricant opened easily and Darael drizzled a large amount onto his hands. He slicked up his fingers, pushed up his kilt, and slid his hand down between Simenon’s legs.
He swirled his fingers around Simenon’s entrance as he studied Simenon’s face. A line creased between Simenon’s brows, and at that Darael slid his first two fingers inside Simenon.
Simenon made a low noise as Darael pressed in deeper. He slid his fingers in and, in and out, watching for any small reaction on Simenon’s unconscious face. His other hand was working his own cock to hardness in a perfunctory manner. His entire attention was transfixed by Simenon.
Sweat was beading on Simenon’s brow when Darael took his hand away. He readjusted his kilt, and, scowling, stroked himself fully erect.
He drew in a deep breath and pushed Simenon’s legs up. Darael braced himself against them before they could slide back down.
Darael positioned his cock at Simenon’s slick entrance and slid into him with a moan of relief. He leaned down and let gravity draw him in deeper. Simenon’s mouth fell open and he moaned rather ghoulishly.
He drew himself out and pistoned his hips to drive himself back in. Simenon’s body twitched beneath him, and Darael clenched his eyes shut.
He settled quickly into an accelerated rhythm, his breathing becoming more and more irregular. His face had gone red and he opened his eyes, but he stared down at Simenon like a blind man
Simenon moaned in time with every thrust.
And then for a moment, Simenon’s eyes were open, and he mumbled something that sounded like a name.
Darael howled his climax.
Darael sat in vigil over Simenon for the next few days, as the colour returned to his face, as his vitals improved, as he slowly returned to consciousness.
Simenon blinked his eyes bleary and tried to sit up.
“Don’t bother,” Darael drawled, studying his nails as Simenon struggled. “You’ve been in bed for over a week, you’re too frail to sit up.”
Simenon sunk back into his pillows. He worked his jaw. “Wha’ happen?” he slurred.
Darael still didn’t look at him. “You managed to get yourself sick–”
“But they fixed you and now you’re better. Don’t worry, I’ve been keeping an eye on you–”
“You,” Simenon snarled, pushing himself back up on arms that trembled like saplings in a stiff breeze, “this was you, you did this, you monster–”
At that, Darael finally turned his gaze on Simenon and let out a cruel little laugh. “You are an idiot, aren’t you.”
Simenon bared his teeth. “I’ll tell Nigellus, I’ll tell everyone you tried to kill me–”
“If I wanted you dead, foolish child, you would be dead already. But since you aren’t–”
“NURSE!” Simenon bellowed. “Nurse!
Darael rolled his eyes and rose to his feet. He stalked over to Simenon’s bed and loomed over him. “Do you want the truth?”
Simenon was breathing heavily. “Like you’d recognise the truth if it was staring you in the face–”
Darael’s lips set in a thin pale line. He bent down close to Simenon’s ear. “I’m the one that saved your life,” he crowed. “Nigellus came and begged me to help you–”
“You’re insane,” Simenon gasped as Nurse Aquila ran down the length of the ward towards them.
She took one look at them and jerked her thumb at the exit. “Out,” she said to Darael.
He raised his chin in defiance and strode out of the infirmary. The haughty expression didn’t fall from his face until he was out of Simenon’s field of view.