by Jump Ai (じゃんぷEYE)
illustrated by gnine
They had fought dozens of times–hundreds, probably, over the last two years; Cale had lost track. Fights that left them aching, scarred and bruised for weeks after; fights that left them both sprawled bloody on the ground, unable to move. But it had never been like this. Never with Quest under him like this, that slender wiry body bucking and straining against his bare chest, both of them so slippery and slick with the gray clay mud that there was no friction between their skin, just the heat of their exertions steaming through the silt.
It was Quest’s fault, of course; it was always Quest’s fault. Cale might have crossed the river this morning, but the first words had been the damn paladin’s. And the sleek black hair coming loose from its braid, the arch of his back and the curve of his neck, the musk of sweat and faint incense under the clean scent of clay–that was all Quest.
Cale wouldn’t have crossed anyway, had it not been the first time he had seen Quest in well over a week. Not since the military ship had roared away, leaving things no better than when the squadron had arrived, too few and too late, as always. The soldiers had gone, but Quest hadn’t emerged from the city, not that day or the days after that. Though he hadn’t been badly wounded in the drake attack, and anyway it wasn’t like the paladin to shirk his duties, wounded or not.
So when he at last had spotted that tall figure in white, crouching down on the banks at the bend where the river was narrowest, Cale had bounded across without thinking. Quest looked up as the splash of mud betrayed his landing, but hadn’t challenged him–technically the river was the border of his territory, but the city’s walls were above the sloped banks, and down at the water’s edge no one could see them anyway. Instead the paladin just asked, “Have any of your pride noticed pollutants in the river, this last week?”
Casually, like it hadn’t been their first words in almost two weeks, and whatever Cale might have been feeling transmuted to burning anger in his chest. The familiar fire that the paladin always sparked. “And if they have?” he growled.
“Ah, I see.” Quest peered up at Cale through his glasses, slipped a couple instruments back in his belt and straightened up to his full angular height, his black eyes almost level with Cale’s tawny glare. “If you’ve also noted them, then the source must be farther upstream. Murkgobs, perhaps, though it would be a bloody large clot of them.” He tilted back his head so he was looking down his nose at Cale, through the rectangular wire frames. “Or else some of your people have been careless in discarding their refuse.”
“My people aren’t some stupid thoughtless city dwellers,” Cale retorted. “All of them know better.”
Quest shrugged, a supple roll of his shoulders under the robes. “I’m myself amazed that any of them know how to tie their shoes, following the example of a beast like you,” and his gaze dropped to Cale’s bare feet below the ragged pants cuffs. “Much less understand the environmental restriction codes.” He adjusted his glasses, so the lenses caught the morning sunlight. “Wild creatures can’t be expected to know the use of a disposal receptacle, or which end of a gun fires–”
Quest should have known better, after this long, should have known what couldn’t be borne. Not from him. In two years the damn paladin still hadn’t figured out just how much weight whatever he said had. People from the Grandcrown, they were listened to. Anything he said could be taken as truth, taken as a challenge, and if Cale left it unanswered–there were those who would take that as a sign of opportunity. Would come hunting for a gang so weak its leader couldn’t even be bothered to defend its honor. And while most of his people could prove themselves without his help, what if they went after someone like Lexalt–the kid was going to be a monster someday, but he was only twelve now, still struggling with his changing.
Quest should have known better, but the bastard said it anyway. He wasn’t one of the pride; Cale had no obligation to protect him from his own mistakes. Nor was Cale a citizen, bound by manners to correct him civilly. Instead, before Quest got any further, he punched the paladin in the jaw–not enough to knock him out, but knock him on his skinny ass, at least, sending his glasses flying–and went for his throat once he was down.
It had been more than a week, long restless nights with no one to take the brunt of his irritation, no one in his pride with the will to battle him seriously; and the force or speed of his attack now must have caught Quest off-guard. Usually the son of a bitch had honor and strength enough not to resort to a paladin’s tricks in their fights, but this time as he rolled out of the way he went for the clips on his belt, snapped open a pellet and flung it at Cale’s amber eyes.
Cale bellowed at the insult, ducked the dust and yanked his knife from its hip sheath. Quest’s black eyes widened fractionally; their fights had mostly stayed hand-to-hand for the last year, but if the bastard was resorting to crude tools than so would he. Cale plunged the blade down, skimming past the paladin’s flat belly to slice through the belt. Ripping it off, pouches rustling and glass clinking, he dashed it to the ground at their feet.
One of the vials shattered on a stray stone, splashing them both with foul-smelling blue liquid. “You damn idiot,” Quest shrieked, “you could’ve at least thrown it into the river!”
Cale snarled and coughed, rubbing his eyes; the hissing smoke rising from the liquid burned his throat and eyes. Burned his skin, too, and he pawed at his pants–then Quest kicked him in the small of the back and sent him tumbling down the riverbank into the brown water.
He clawed his way to the surface, spitting and choking, heard the splash as Quest dove in as well and lunged for him. Quest was the better swimmer but once Cale got a good hold on him he had the advantage of mass, and with the water’s drag the paladin lost his edge in speed. They grappled in the frothing water, over and under, shoving and straining as the current tumbled them downstream, until it eventually pushed them into the marshy silt at the river’s bend, soaked and panting for breath.
Cale’s clothes were in tatters; he finished the job the acid had started, ripping off the remains of his shirt. The few shreds of cloth tenaciously clinging to Quest’s body were streaked gray and brown and bloody, no inch of white remaining. And yet he still made an effort to straighten them, adjusting what was left of his collar with such absurdly prissy dignity that Cale had to laugh. “Don’t worry about it, you look better in mud anyway. Brings out that pasty complexion.”
Quest’s glasses were long gone but he peered down his long nose anyway. “And I suppose I could say blood suits you, but that’s only to be expected of a beast.”
“Damn straight,” Cale growled, and kicked low to sweep Quest’s skinny bare legs out from under him, but Quest slipped out of the way with a dancer’s fluid grace and countered with a driving heel kick powerful enough to dent steel.
It had been a long time since they had fought like this. Outside the city walls, no guards would come running to defend the paladin; and outside their territory his own gang wouldn’t join him. And any farther out there were nomads and murkgobs and things worse than even a bastard paladin, but here by the river was closer to the city’s gun turrets than those worse things dared venture. The rushing water was loud enough to cover their grunts and curses and the impact of blows on flesh. No one would come; it was only them. Only him and Quest and their battle, and perhaps finally, finally they would reach the end. Determine a victor, as they never had all those dozens–hundreds–of fights before.
And it would be him, Cale knew. He had never lost a fight before–not a second fight, anyway; he couldn’t afford to. There was a reason his gang was the largest in the county, in the state, maybe in the whole damn country, for all he knew. They might live outside walls, but those gathered under him were safer than city people.
Though this wasn’t about his gang; hadn’t been for a long time. Only citizens were supposed to be a paladin’s charge, but Quest had sworn to protect his pride, and the son of a bitch kept his promises. He had certainly proven the oath when the drakes had come. Even now Cale could see that proof, the scars down the paladin’s arm, flushed white-edged red under the mud, where burning talons had scored a lasting mark.
It made him falter, that reminder, like he could still smell the brimstone char of the monsters’ breath, Quest’s hoarse scream ringing in his ears. Then that wiry arm wrapped around his throat from behind, and the paladin’s acid whisper scalded his ear, “Contemplating my possible weaknesses? There’s enough of your own that should occupy you more.”
Cale hissed, but instead of trying to wrench free, he grabbed Quest’s arm, relaxed his limbs and dropped, letting his greater mass carry them both down to the ground. Before Quest could let go, he rolled onto his back, crushing the lighter man beneath him. Quest shoved and struggled, his throws and holds all but useless in the squelching, shifting mud. “Off me!”
“What?” Cale grinned, and felt his lips stretch against teeth that were sharper than they had been, but ignored it. “A paladin’s soldier training is useless against the weight of one hem?”
“That training’s not for wrestling in the mud like a couple kittens,” Quest snapped, trying to pry up an elbow to jab him in the ribs. “A soldier is taught to be deadly, not to play like a beast!”
Quest could call him a beast. The paladin was from the cities–from the damn Grandcrown, up in the sky higher than even the biggest drake could fly, safe from anything, where they could cure any disease or wound and no one, even hems, ever went hungry. He had no reason to fight or win but his own pride, his honor, which he kept as pristine as his white paladin’s robes.
Which, when you got down to it, was what Cale hated more than anything, that the bastard had been down on the ground for two years, and had done so damn much, and yet still held his duty sacrosanct, above it all. Quest wasn’t one to ever hide behind the city’s guards or guns; no, he walked out of those walls every damn day, battled for every square foot of farmland, every scrap of the citizens’ lives, as hard as he had battled for every foot before. And yet he still bowed his head to pompous officials who never dared leave the safety of their palaces; to ignorant officers whose education had been in classrooms with hardwood desks, whose commissions had been graduation gifts.
Not three weeks ago, Cale had seen the blood of a four-year-old girl stain that white cloak bloody, had seen those black eyes blank and glassy with tears he had been too tired to shed. But the next day the cloak had been bleached clean, and Quest’s ebon stare had been dutifully lowered as he took orders from the doddering old general whose squadron had arrived that morning. Too late, of course, to do anything but clean up the mess the drakes had left. Not that those scrub-faced, milk-fed boys in their tailored and pressed uniforms would have been any help in that attack. Cale could’ve taken out the whole damn squadron by himself, which meant Quest could have as well.
But instead the paladin dropped his eyes and whined, “Yes, sir,” like a dog and it made Cale sick, because he knew what the respect of a man like that is worth and those pathetic so-called soldiers hadn’t done a damn thing to earn it.
Cale twisted around, got a grip on one skinny wrist and wrenched Quest’s arm across his back. The paladin grunted as he used that leverage to flip him over, then grabbed his other wrist and forced down both his arms before Quest could retaliate. Cale remained on top, kneeling to bear down on Quest’s naked arching back, as the paladin fought to break free. “Yeah, but don’t forget,” and Cale ducked his head to hiss into Quest’s ear, the metal ring piercing his lobe pressing into his cheek, “a beast’s play is always deadly.”
Quest slammed his head back, hard enough to pulp his nose, but Cale pulled his head to the side in time. No damn way would he lose to any son of a bitch paladin who bowed and saluted and groveled to the worthless trash army of a meaningless government. The growl tore from his throat without words, deeper than the voice of a man. Quest was bucking against him, and Cale felt his muscles over his bones shifting and swelling as he strained to hold the paladin, calling on all his strength, that of a man, and that which wasn’t a man’s. At the base of his spine the tendons twitched to lash a tail that was not yet grown, though he could feel the naked start of it pulling at his skin.
There was a different heat pooling below that, though, a stirring that had nothing to do with his leonine half, and everything to do with the slender, mud-slicked body pressed under him.
Quest threw back his head again, smashing against his cheekbone, and Cale snarled. Without his hands free, he acted instinctively, driving Quest’s black-haired head down with his own and then clamping his teeth around the ridge of bone at the base of his neck. His teeth had become sharp enough to pierce the skin, drawing dots of blood, and Quest jerked and stiffened with a high faint sound.
Not quite strength enough yet to sever the spine, but he wasn’t trying to; a lion’s jaws can break an antelope’s back, but this wasn’t a hunter’s brutal butchery, for all that Quest had gone still as terrified prey. The paladin’s breath shuddered in his lungs, the rise and fall of his exhalations pulsating against Cale’s chest. Cale growled, the vibration of it a purring hum into Quest’s neck, and Quest made that sound again, almost too soft to be a whimper.
Slowly Cale uncurled his fingers from around Quest’s wrists, the flesh marked white under his grip, and brought up one hand to Quest’s chest, to the solid, rapid pounding of his heart under his ribs. His fingers were beginning to lock into a curve, claws extending as he pressed the pads against the taut muscle of the paladin’s torso, tracing light, bloodless scores. With his other hand he reached further down, followed the lean lines of Quest’s body to the swell of his buttocks, leaving streaks like trails through the smeared mud.
Quest’s head jerked back, and Cale opened his jaw before his fangs were driven deeper, bowed his head again to lathe his roughening tongue over the tiny red drops beaded on the pale skin. Quest gasped, breath caught short, the slick rounded muscle of his ass clenching tight. Cale’s hand was wedged between that curving cleft and the hard length of his own erection pressed to his belly, the claws only barely sheathed. The coppery-sweet taste of blood in his mouth was overwhelmed by the musk of Quest’s sweat as he buried his nose in the lean shoulder, black strands escaping from the paladin’s braid to tangle in his own golden mane.
Dozens, hundreds, of fights before, and he had never been this close, so close that he could smell nothing but Quest’s body. Could hear nothing but Quest’s beating heart, and the high mewling whine in his throat, as Cale’s clawed fingers worked in further, deeper.
He had never heard its like before, not from Quest’s always able mouth; he had heard the paladin curse, and sing, and scream, but never that breathless, helpless noise. Quest was never helpless; never desperate. Even with ten drakes surrounding him, blazing with their self-destructive, poisonous flames, he hadn’t trembled. Even when kneeling to present the charges against the governor, knowing there were fifty guns in the turrets trained on him and a man corrupt enough to order them to fire, his voice hadn’t shaken with that desperation.
It was enough that Cale’s hands stilled; he drew back, panting for breath himself, dizzily torn between the desires of his body, the pull of his senses; and the ache in his head, in his chest, that this, still, was not what he wanted. That he could force Quest to kneel with fang and claw, and that should be victory, and yet it weighed on his heart like a defeat.
Then Quest contorted under him, enough to twist his head around to glare–not victory yet, because there was no defeat smoldering in the black coal of his eye. “Beast enough to start, but not man enough to finish what you started?” Quest spat, lips thinning to a tight smirk, as he drove his elbow backwards, aiming to crush his throat.
Cale roared, resounding in his chest, echoing over the river. He didn’t block but caught the blow, twisted Quest’s arm back as he sprang forward, throwing all his considerable and growing mass on top of the paladin. Not enough to cause real injury; he wasn’t trying to slaughter his prey, not that kind of hunt, not that kind of hunger. With the strength of his shifting muscles, Quest’s struggles were not enough to trouble him to strain, instead only goaded him.
With one hand he caught up both the paladin’s, gripped tight the wiry wrists and forced them over Quest’s head. His other hand again slipped over the cheeks of those narrow, shaped buttocks, spread them wide. Quest tried to curl away, braced on bent legs, but Cale pushed him back down, set his hips and drove in. Slick with sweat and silt, the entry gave way, tight but smooth, and then he was inside, against and with him as he had never been in all their congress before.
Quest under him was writhing, shoving up against him, gasping unvoiced breaths–not even that wordless desperation in his throat now, nothing left at all. His eyes were closed, head angled back painfully. Cale’s grip held down his hands, arms stretched helplessly out before him, the gray mud bubbling up between their spread fingers.
Closing his eyes over that image, Cale arched his back and pushed deeper into the paladin, and Quest trembled, tightened around him, until Cale could scream of it. The corded muscle under the slippery satin of his skin worked and twisted against his strength, and Cale felt every flex, every tremor, shuddering through his own body like an electric current. Power burning under him, around him, through him. The river’s water had been chill, the slimy mud cool, but now there was only this devouring, absolute blaze, fever to sear his lungs. His throat burned and whether he still was breathing himself, he couldn’t tell, could hear or feel nothing but the paladin’s rhythmic panting, almost in time with the pounding, inescapable thrusts of his hips.
Cale came fast and hard inside that supple strong body, felt his heat rush into Quest’s own tight heat with a gasp that sucked the last air from his lungs. His gut was roiling as he drew himself free, shoved Quest back as if the paladin’s sweat would blister him like acid.
The paladin rocked forward, caught himself on his hands and knees, the tangled black rope of his braid falling over one bare shoulder. Those shoulders were heaving as he gasped for breath. Slowly he lowered himself to the muddy ground, long legs folding under him with stiff, bruised care. His head came up just as slowly, turned toward Cale.
Cale twisted away, wrenched his whole body around. Whatever might be in those black eyes–despair, rage, hatred–he didn’t want to see it. Didn’t want to hear it, so when the soft vibration of Quest’s beaten voice behind him reached his ears, he ran. Upstream along the banks of the river, straining to outmatch the greatest possible pace of his legs, until he reached a narrow enough point to jump over the brown waters. Then he was back in his own territory, racing through the barren earth and bramble where the paladin, uninvited, would never follow.
Cale made his way to one of his pride’s outer camps, on the eastern edge of their territory. In the heat of the coming midday, it was deserted, most of his gang probably asleep in the shade of the central caves. He took a dip in the water hole to wash off the flaking mud, and dressed in the extra clothes left in the cache with other supplies. Then he sat by the unlit fire pit with his knees up and his arms curled around them. Staring at the gray ash, watching the wind pick up and blow away a few grains at a time, scattering it bit by bit until none would be left.
The short noon shadows were stretching out again when distantly he heard the sound of someone approaching. Not from the river, but the direction of the caves. He stood up to get a better look over the scattered patches of bramble, and immediately spotted the bright red-orange tuft that topped the head of one of the youngest of his four hundred. Cale waved. “Lexalt!”
“Cale!” Lexalt skipped high, a leap that cleared an entire thorny thicket in one bound, and dashed the rest of the way to the camp. He skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust, his long tongue lolling from his mouth as he panted. The shape of the boy’s features was human enough, not even fangs showing behind his grinning lips, but with his mahogany skin, daffodil-yellow eyes, and that hair, he could never be mistaken for anything but what he was, and so had never had any reason not to act true to his nature. It never failed to make Cale smile to see it, even now.
“Cale,” Lexalt said, “everyone’s looking for you. Though I didn’t think I’d be the one to find you, coming all the way up here. Why are you here, anyway, did you already hear about it?”
“Hear about what?” Cale asked sharply.
Lexalt hopped from one foot to the other, a nervous bounce. “Bru says she saw murkgobs. Upstream, right at the edge of the territory.”
The paladin had said something about murkgobs, this morning. Before they–before. No wonder he had come out of hiding in the city, if he had suspected they were that close. Murkgobs weren’t picky eaters, but a full-grown human or hem was on the large side to fit down their gullets. But what their wastes did to water, if they were allowed to fester in it for any length of time…and the river fed the reservoir that supplied the city’s water, and his gang drank from the currents directly.
Cale stretched, flexed his fingers. The claws were invisible now, but not yet gone; he could feel them retracted under the skin, scraping against the bone. “Go tell everyone I’ll take care of it myself,” he said.
“But, Cale,” Lexalt stammered, changing feet again. “Bru says there were a lot of them–”
“I’ll take care of it,” Cale repeated, reached out to tousle that orange mop like he always did, only to stop, remembering black hair and white skin under his claws. He yanked back his hand, choked down the growl in his throat before it frightened the boy. “Go and tell them, now. I’ll be back at the caves by nightfall.”
“Yes, Cale,” Lexalt said, bobbing his bright head, and bounded away.
Cale watched him until he disappeared over a ridge, then took off himself, heading in the opposite direction, northeast, toward the river. He ran as fast as before, faster, letting himself change, bone expanding, muscle stretching, until he was loping on all four limbs, long body curling and extending in a huge, ground-eating gallop and his tail low behind him.
He reached the river in minutes, and crashed into the clot of murkgobs with the force of a leonine locomotive, grabbed the closest in his jaws and bit down until bone cracked and the gibbering creature went limp. Throwing it aside with a wrench of his head, he sprang for the next, splashing into the water, and then they were all on him, shrieking and biting and clawing with their webbed talons. Bru had been right; there were a lot of the creatures, enough to cover him from muzzle to tail, ripping at his fur with their simian faces set in leering hateful grimaces. However many Cale tore into, more surged forward to replace them.
But there was no paladin here, no black eyes, no smooth pale skin against his, just mud matting his fur and the taste of bitter rusty blood, and Cale gladly accepted those limits, let that be his world entire, until he won the fight.
His enemies were on top of him, beneath him, pushing him down, tugging him down, ropey reptilian limbs forcing his head under the muddy brown water, and no matter how much he thrashed he couldn’t free himself.
Then there was a shout–“Cale!”, an oddly familiar sound, as if he had heard those syllables somewhere before, as if sound could have meaning besides warning of another attack. A vial splashed into the water before him, spreading crackling green flames over the ripples. The murkgobs wailed and let go.
“Cale, get below! Deep! Now!”
Too many sounds to make sense of them, but an unnatural instinct in him prodded him to take the deepest breath he could, and dive to the river’s bottom, tangling his paws in the mud and reeds to keep himself submerged. The water was bitter with the murkgobs’ blood and waste and he closed his mouth against it, closed his nose.
Over his head, light burst, filtered by the muddy water, then died away, the greenish flickers through the brown fading, and then they were gone. He pushed back to the surface, past the floating bodies of murkgobs, some leaking rusty ichor from the marks of his teeth and claws, some untouched, but all smelled dead, a reek as bitter as their blood, but even more satisfying.
His head broke the surface in a cascade of blood-tinged water, and he coughed up more of the river as he paddled toward the shore. Around him all the murkgobs were still, dead, but his tawny predator’s eyes caught motion at the water’s edge, a flash of white robes. His paws just touching down on solid ground, he crouched, tail whisking low under the water, readying himself to take down his last enemy–
But the tall figure didn’t flee or bare its teeth in return, just shook his head. “I thought we worked through that already today, Cale,” Quest said.
Because of course it was the paladin, and Cale dropped his head, shivering with the effort to keep himself from pouncing. He dragged himself out of the water, flopped down on the shale and licked at the wound on his shoulder, the taste of his own blood sweet after the murkgobs’ bitter ichor.
Any hem knows the dangers of changing too completely, of giving in too much to one’s animal half and forsaking one’s innately human nature. Cale had changed to fight before, many times, but never this far. Never so far that it was difficult to remember how it felt to walk on two legs, to remember what speech was. To remember his real life as a man, the things he had done as a man–or somewhat a man, because he was always also a beast, no matter his form. Quest was right about that.
It took some effort to reshape his jaws and tongue enough to form words, and they still came out slurred and gratingly deep. “Quest. Why are you here?”
The paladin came forward, crouched down beside him, keeping his robes above the mud with natural, unconscious fastidiousness. “Oh, thank goodness,” he said. “I was starting to wonder if perhaps I’d got it wrong and you were an actual lion, coincidentally escaped from the nearest zoo.”
Cale coughed, a snarly rasping rumble. It was the closest he could manage to a laugh. “Where’s the nearest zoo?”
Quest cocked his head, considering. “Not sure. Old Fitchburg used to have a small one.”
“Isn’t that about a thousand miles from here?”
It was getting easier to speak. To think. Cale shrugged his massive shoulders, and fur shed off him in thick sand-colored clouds. Bones clicked and creaked painfully as they remembered their other shapes. He pulled himself sitting, wishing some scrap of clothing had survived. Not out of any modesty, but the sun had set and with the fur gone, save for the tawny mane falling over his shoulders, the wind would have a chill bite.
Quest watched with undisguised interest, ebon eyes traveling with unabashed focus over Cale’s transforming body, lingering here and there on the swell of reknitting muscles, the tail as it drew in and vanished into the line of his rear. At any other time Cale would have taken insult, intended or not, from that stare, but he had no call for it now. That the paladin had saved his life–that was not a new thing, for either of them, just one more tally on a mostly even scorecard. But not after today. Not after what he had done.
“Quest,” he said again, tiredly. His shoulder ached, the blood still dripping; transforming had split the wound a little wider. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to evaluate the murkgob infestation,” Quest said, reasonably enough. “I admit I wasn’t expecting to find it mostly taken care of.”
“Mostly,” Cale echoed. If the paladin hadn’t come…
Quest looked out over the river, the scaly simian corpses in the water. “A big clot indeed. This is twice as many as I’ve ever seen gathered before. If the mayor concurs, I’ll report it to the governor. Find out if there’s been a new breeding pattern observed elsewhere. And tomorrow I’ll bring out a team to manage the clean-up.”
He turned back. “For now…” and he reached for his belt, took out a small kit and scooted forward to Cale’s side, still not letting any mud spatter his robes. Clean new robes, purely white as those shredded this morning.
Cale hissed as the cloth with the disinfectant touched his wounded shoulder, didn’t allow himself to look, or to flinch away. If this was what Quest wanted, for whatever reasons–guilt, perhaps, to crush him under the burning, sickening shame. A paladin was versed in all manner of battles, psychological included.
It was Quest’s right. The victor’s right, because he had won, in the end. Cale couldn’t even look at him. Couldn’t allow himself one glimpse of that sleek black hair, perfectly plaited once more; couldn’t let himself remember its softness against his cheek. Quest’s hands were skillfully tying a bandage around his wound, and all he could think of was the gray mud welling up between those long fingers as he forced the paladin to the ground.
“You’re not hiding any other injuries, are you, Cale?” Quest asked, tucking the bandages and bottle back into the kit and taking out a small jar. “This salve will help with the ichor burns.”
He didn’t hand the jar over, though, instead unscrewed the lid, scooped a dab of clear liquid onto his fingers and began to smooth it over a patch on Cale’s bicep. This time Cale recoiled back before he could recall his resolution.
Quest blinked as if that had been the last thing he had expected, and it was all Cale could do not to dash the jar out of his hands, throw it in the river. “Why–” he began, and caught himself, changed it. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
Quest smiled, the same smirk as always, smugly, irritatingly confident. Like no look he would ever show the generals or the governors in their high and important posts. “And here I thought even a beast would be cunning enough to recognize its own name.”
“Hell, I’m just surprised a beast’s name would be worth remembering,” Cale muttered, before he could help it.
“I’ve never once forgotten it. Not since I first learned it,” Quest said, and the smirk was still on his face, halfway at least, but his tone was wrong for it, too soft, too intense. He held up his salve-coated fingers. “Now let me see to those burns.”
“Why?” Cale rasped.
“Because they’ll itch like hell tomorrow otherwise.”
“No,” and it came out a snarl, like his throat wasn’t quite yet a man’s. “Why, after this morning–why’d you come, why’d you stay here when you saw me? Why’d you tell me to go under water, when you could’ve let your paladin’s fire fry me? Instead you’ve got–salve, and you…after this morning, why?”
Quest rocked back–onto his heels, not enough that his robe got in the mud. Frowned, only a little, but in the falling night Cale could see his eyes had gone one shade darker. “Most of it’s as it always has been between us, I thought. As we’ve both had it be. The salve…” He looked down at the jar in his hand, a faint line creasing his brow, like he was almost surprised to find it there himself. “The salve is because of this morning. So I thought.”
“But why? Is it–some kind of punishment, for yourself? Do you have to–to–” He couldn’t imagine, couldn’t comprehend, but a paladin’s ways could be disturbingly strange, their system of honor impenetrable. If this were ritual–a way somehow to restore purity, to pile abasement on abasement–“I am sorry, Quest,” and the rest of the possible words stuck in his throat. No way or right to ask forgiveness; no way to excuse himself, to say he hadn’t meant to without lying, so obviously anyone would see it, and no falsehood could pass the paladin’s eyes anyway.
“Sorry?” Quest repeated, and his black eyes now were pitch, holes in the twilight blue shadows across his face. “Is that to say you regret it? A mistake on your part, now that you’ve considered?”
“It was a mistake,” Cale said, “and I regret it, oh god, Quest, I regret it,” and that was no lie, for all the traitorous monster inside him reminding him of the intoxicating scent of sweat and incense under clay. The beast, that Quest had always seen, and should have known better to ever approach. A paladin should be wiser.
But he had not been, and now the paladin was angry. Cale had never seem him so angry, and yet he recognized it, in the way Quest’s face had paled to drawn white, in the thinned set of his lips. In the utter calm of his voice, almost as respectfully even as when he addressed an official or an officer. “So now I suppose it will be over, our association.”
“I suppose it has to be,” Cale said, “I…” and he tried for the same calm, tried to return that sarcastic respect sincerely, but instead his voice broke. “I never wanted to hurt you,” and that was obviously a lie; they’d fought too hard before, and he had wanted to win, so damn badly; but it was true, all the same, because he had never wanted this.
Quest was a statue carved from alabaster, glowing and beautiful in the rising moonlight. “…’hurt me’?”
There was no anger in his voice now. There was nothing at all, tone and face completely blank.
Then the calm shattered into howling outrage. “‘Hurt me’?!” the paladin cried, and heedless of getting mud or blood on his precious robes, he hurtled forward into Cale, sent them both sprawling on the ground with Quest on top, one knee grinding perilously hard into Cale’s groin and the paladin’s elbow wedged under his throat.
“You want to try to hurt me now?” Quest grated, smirking and wild-eyed, his braid hanging down to brush against Cale’s cheek. Cale tried to push up the paladin’s arm enough to breathe, but Quest was levering himself against the stone with his other leg, unmoveable as steel, for all the deceptive fragility of his birdlike build. Quest curled his free hand around Cale’s uninjured arm, tightening at the exact point to evoke a stab of pain that numbed from shoulder to fingertips. “Interestingly enough, many pressure points are as effective on other species as they are on humans, once one takes into account anatomical variations.”
Black spots were flashing before Cale’s vision; he wasn’t sure if it was due to the lack of oxygen or the pressure point. Quest lifted his arm, enough to allow him to cough, but then locked his hand around his neck, digging his fingers and thumb into the nerves right below the pulse behind his ears, and the pain was enough that Cale shuddered.
“You over-confident, egocentric, irritating, ignorant, oblivious beast!” Quest raged. “You think you’re strong enough to do anything to me that I don’t want done?!”
And then Quest leaned down, sliding up his grip to cup his jaw, his other hand releasing his arm to tangle in Cale’s golden hair, and kissed him, long and hard and sweetly, hotly deep.
Some minutes later the paladin sat back, heavily, all his weight on Cale’s abdomen. Heavier than he looked, though nowhere near as heavy as the secret steel of his frame should be. His black eyes were blinking nearsightedly–Cale realized with a guilty flash that his glasses were nowhere in evidence, probably broken this morning–and his lips swollen, colored with the flush over his cheeks. “Hm,” he remarked, “perhaps I should have tried that first.”
His long fingers still held Cale’s chin, cool against the blood rising in his own cheeks, Quest’s other hand idly combing through his thick mane, unweaving snags in the curls. “It might’ve helped assure we were both on the same page. As it were,” the paladin mused. “Besides…” Quest leaned down again to once more bring their mouths together, longer yet this time, a more intense exploration. Even he sounded breathless when they broke apart. “Y-yes,” he panted. “Definitely should have tried it before.”
“Quest,” Cale finally managed to find the words, “it was all–this morning–”
Quest sighed. “I’d’ve thought it obvious even to a beast,” and it was pronounced with the same insulting bite as ever, but there was that undercurrent that Cale had never been able to identify before, a warmth in his tone that never sounded when he spoke to his government masters, anymore than the insult ever did. “What possible reason would I have for carrying seven vials of clothes-eating acid in my belt?”
“I had to make sure at least one would break. Do you know how long it took me to perfect that compound?”
“Knowing you, half an hour.”
“More like an hour and a half,” Quest said, sounding snippish, but the color in his face rose higher at the compliment. “And all unnecessary anyway,” he said, sliding a hand across Cale’s bare chest to tease one nipple to a hard point. “All I had to do was goad you to transform. With your tantrums, that’s laughably simple.”
“That would’ve gotten us only halfway there,” Cale pointed out, and then grinned, baring the tips of a few growing fangs. “But there are other ways,” and he took hold of either side of Quest’s collar and parted the white cloth with a most satisfying rip.
Quest shrieked, almost as satisfyingly, “Two robes in one day–you–” He snatched at the torn edges, but Cale drew the robes off the pale shoulders instead like he was husking an ear of corn and threw them aside, enjoying the paladin’s livid horror as his uniform splashed into the river. Quest made to punch him in the jaw for the trouble, but Cale caught up the fist in his own and pulled him down for another kiss. Which the paladin partook of eagerly, but he also used the opportunity to give Cale a good kick in the shins with his boot, so Cale rolled them both over. Easier to contain those long flailing limbs when he was on top.
The flat shale wasn’t as comfortable on his knees as the mud, and his hands didn’t glide down Quest’s twisting body as smoothly without the silt. While he immensely enjoyed the heat of that friction, it would pose a problem in other areas. If the river weren’t blocked up with several dozen bloated murkgob corpses–
Quest saw him glance to the water and shook his head. “No need,” he panted, shoved Cale off enough to stretch out and grab the jar of salve where it had fallen. “This has a number of uses.”
Cale took the small jar, peered into it, dismayed. “But there’s so little.”
“Such a beast,” Quest said, but this time it didn’t sound nearly so insulting. “There’s more where that came from. For now, we must make do,” and he arched his hips up to Cale’s, their straining erections brushing with an electric charge that raised every hair on Cale’s body.
With a growl deep enough to vibrate the marrow of their bones, he bore down on the paladin, any more pressure and the seeming steel of that trim frame would snap like deadwood. But Quest boldly pushed back against him, hooking his legs around his thighs, his arms around his neck. Cale could think of half a dozen pressure points on himself that Quest could reach with ease from his position, probably another dozen he didn’t even know about. He might have the paladin trapped, but he was just as captured.
No different than ever before. He supposed he shouldn’t have expected victory to come any easier now.
Quest’s breaths were uneven, every stroke of Cale’s hand down between his thighs disrupting their rhythm, and if Cale’s ears weren’t feline-sharp he wouldn’t have been able to make out the paladin’s gasped whisper. “Two hundred–thirty-seven draws. Only–a beast–wouldn’t know–when to give up.”
“Or a bastard paladin,” Cale returned, and then asked, “Two hundred thirty-seven?” or tried to, except that right then Quest rubbed against him at such an angle that he couldn’t speak at all.
Two hundred and thirty-seven fights. So, hundreds after all. But then, he had never wanted an easy win. Any more than the paladin ever had. And there would be plenty of battles yet.
For now, Cale gave in, admitted his defeat by sealing his mouth over the paladin’s, closing his fingers tighter; and Quest’s own surrender was offered in the parting of his lips, in the liquid heat spurting between their bellies; and Cale couldn’t even imagine what the eventual victory would be like, when this losing was more satisfying than any win before.