by Lola Mente (鱸蘿 牝手)
illustrated by beili
Lee wakes up alone, not as uncommon for him as most would believe. Innately a creature of vice and indulgence – the kinder side of his duality, if one would believe it – it would only make sense for him to bring a disciple or simply some mortal he met in a bar home with him, night after night, either a regular fuck or a perpetual line of strangers wanting a taste of the divine.
In the day he wakes to sunlight, passes the time observing the brief lives of the people living all around him. In the night he slips on the face of the frenzy, the dancing and seduction and oh, the imbibing. He has never been a great athlete, for a god, but damn can he hold his liquor. Certainly beyond the means of any mortal, though that didn’t seem to deter the faithful from challenging. Defeat the god of bright color and shadow at his own game, they say, and he would grant you any boon. And it’s true enough, since he put that rumor out himself. A safe bet; no one, mortal or divine, has ever mastered Lee’s games.
Reputation for indulgence aside, he’s restless this morning. As a god he technically has no need of sleep, which makes it in fact the ultimate indulgence. But the urge has left him, the pleasure’s long gone. He rises, keyed up for some inexplicable reason – no, it’s his dreams, the dreams of an oracle Lee refuses to face in the light of day. He stares up into the Miami sky to banish it. Mimosas: now there’s a purview he can get behind.
Of course, no one makes a better mimosa than Lee, but it’s the kind of morning he’d prefer the flawed work of some mortal. It won’t get him any more drunk than the orange juice on its own, but he likes the fizz, the evidence of the hand that mixed it. Lee can concoct the perfect balance of substance and flavor, but no drink of his will ever have the rough beauty of some mortal’s stumbling attempt to match it.
Maria-Francesa, Fareja to friends and regulars, knows his step well enough that she has no need at all to look up. She met him as a young waitress in some dark dive, doing coke off the bar, and Lee could see the stain of dark rum on her soul. For no reason she stood out from the indistinguishable faces of the damned, and he’d touched her shoulder, lowered his sunglasses, and offered her a small velvet bag of deep purple. “Purer than the shit you’re snorting,” he said, and Fareja had looked into his eyes and understood.
Now Fareja is old, con nietas, siempre nietas. Long life carved her pretty smile to a wicked grin. She won’t let Lee give her a dime, but he still takes her dancing on the odd Saturday night, kisses the rum that marked her against her lips. They have their agreements; Fareja’s home is left untouched by the grasping spirits of the city’s filthiest secrets, and Lee never seduced her youngest son-in-law, as beautiful and tempted as the man has been since first they met.
She has the mimosa ready by the time he reaches the bar – her own bar and grill now, another boon of the shadow god’s favor. He could hardly have picked a more delightful woman to barter a soul from.
“Hijo,” she says, and cackles, her own little joke. “You beat the lunch crowd. This is too early.”
Lee takes her hand and kisses it; she swats at him with a rag. “To see you? There is no hour too late or too early for that.”
“Yes, pero, tell that to my daughters.” Fareja laughs again, and raises her own drink to Lee’s. The cross pendant she wears swings free for a moment. Lee teases her constantly about idolatry; Fareja calls him el diabolito and threatens to burn him with a rosary. They both know she won’t be seeing heaven or hell when she dies. “Will you let me read your cards?”
There’s no doubt she has read his cards before. The prophet’s temptation, to look beyond the mundane. It takes a reader who can see in the dark to read the shadowed lines of Lee’s future, let alone his heart, but Fareja has known him long for a mortal, and has lived in the shadows even longer. “Abuela,” Lee says, “you tell me about my flaws enough already.”
“You must be a coward god to be so afraid of your future,” Fareja replies, taking Lee’s empty glass back. He doesn’t remember finishing his drink. While Fareja pours him another, Lee traces his fingers around the ring of water it left behind on the dark red false wood of the bar. Oh yes, he’s a coward. But he’s got the eyes for prophecy, too, and he’s seen too damn much already.
The birth of a god is a tricky business. The conceit of immortality means that the god’s always been there, really, and everyone who has any business knowing has always known. Lee remembers the creation of all things, the spinning of belief among the people who call them into existence. He remembers the spirals and destruction of history, rising and falling, shifted by the faintest of divine touches, shaken by the conflicts of a pantheon.
But Lee remembers when he sat in a smoky bar as if he had always been there, a shot of whiskey in one hand and a deck of cards in the other. No one had doubted that he belonged there, and no one seemed to pay him any notice until a fat woman all wrapped in bold stripes and bright flowers, eyes milky with blindness, sat across the booth from him.
“Child,” she’d said, her deep voice sounding sad, and Lee had remembered sorrow, a hazy memory he couldn’t place but knew to be certain. “This is your place now.”
Lee reached out, hapless and trusting as he’d been then, to take her gnarled fingers in his smooth, youthful hands. “Hasn’t it always been?”
But she hadn’t smiled or agreed, just took back her hand and kissed his brow before melting back into the crowd again.
In the afternoon, Lee wanders the beaches, drinking from his own flask. The skies are full of portents, so he watches the beachgoers in their bikinis and trunks, tourist t-shirts and sunhats. Beauty mingles with mundane here, the offensive to the enthralling, but it’s all so compelling. Human bodies and human interaction. Some days Lee walks out into the crowd to feel it and let them think him one of them. Impermanent. Vivid. Sometimes he shows up to large gatherings uninvited with some bottle or another, and within five minutes he’s the life of the party.
Today he just watches. The effect of his dreams, maybe. The movements of the people before him form undulating patterns, blurred in the heat haze, and the buzz of thousands of speakers braid together into one cacophonous voice. Lee could interpret it if he could be bothered, but there’s no real point. He knows that what voice will say.
There’s a mass of clouds to the south, a more mundane portent to read: thunderstorms in the evening. He could lurk on dark sideways or blow smoke with the other addicts under a thin overhang. They miss the days gone by when bar walls were coated in smoke and the air almost opaque, but Lee likes the crackle in the air, and there’s nothing cold about rain from the Caribbean. Something as run-of-the-mill as rain won’t interfere with his own cigarette. But no one will notice.
Somewhere in the heart of Miami, someone will die. A dozen deaths, Lee’s betting himself. His deaths, anyway. But they’ll whisper and hiss in his ears as the lights go out, so there’s nowhere Lee particularly needs to be. Plenty of places to haunt. A whole city of people out for a good time. The faithful and the needy begging for a visitation. He could find a fuck for the evening, maybe more if he times it right.
But it’s still the afternoon, and Lee has to tell it straight, at least to himself: there’s only one face he wants to see.
He hasn’t always lived in Miami. It’s a city well-suited to him, but by either metric of immortality Lee has predated the city as it is this century and the past. There is always a place for the desperate and the self-destructive in any given place. Lee once spent his time flitting from one to another, marking the souls that would be his to collect. He’s developed a system by now of course, and a death he can’t witness will still give up the soul to his keeping. This is the other side of his coin. The solemn to the capricious, the death to the life, the duty to the pleasure. The effect to the cause. But this was the aspect that drove a wedge between Lee and—
Gold skin, wide hands. The calluses of a warrior, the tones of a poet, and the all-consuming passion that drove him through any intention he made. Curled hair the darkest brown, that hung in his face when he dragged Lee in for a kiss. Oh, he was bright and true, the poet god, the forward charge. And he had wanted the black-skinned god of the shadows, the cheating god, the guide to the souls of the lost and the fallen. Had fucked the bridgekeeper on his own ground, in dark alleys or sunlit beds, alone or surrounded by seekers of pleasure.
Lee had stained him. But he had lit up some of Lee’s shadows, and now neither of them were as they should have been.
It’s been years, the better part of a lifetime by mortal reckoning. The cheating god should not pine, shouldn’t let the past shackle him, and yet here he lives in Miami, where all the poets bear Lee’s mark alone. The lord of the shadows shouldn’t seek out the sunlight, and the patron of euphoria and frenzy has no place wallowing in self-pity and sleeping on the job.
It’s bad enough he no longer reads the luck of the draw.
Lee’s feet carry him toward the bridge to Miami Beach while the sun hangs lower in the sky, half obscured by the storm’s washing in. A long line of cars sits parked, as ever. Any of these drivers could be his by the morning, and if he cared to, he could ensure it. There’s little fun in killing, though. It’s always far more fascinating to watch them do it to each other, or to themselves.
It’s probably true for the rest of the pantheon, watching him at his current lowest. They must wonder. Surely another seer has uncovered the same truth as Lee had, and had none of Lee’s horror in sharing it; perhaps they are all of them waiting for Lee’s fate to come to pass.
He kicks a palm tree. Just to taunt him, it only sways in the wind.
It began like this:
A busy night. Lee had a whole flask full of debts now, souls to harvest at his leisure. They kept offering themselves with no expectation of payment, banking on being able to outplay the cheating god. Lee only ever relied on sleight-of-hand in such challenges, though if he cared to he could examine the twisted threads of luck in the whiskey sour at his elbow. But that would make an already effortless game downright boring.
He leaned back in his chair. Here he never bothered with glamour, even less so than usual; the people came looking for a god, and Lee had never been the kind of god to reward the worthy. Whim and improvisation, that was more his style. Here, lit by gas lamps and clogged with tobacco smoke, he could direct a windfall to the young man with the shaved head and the blacked eye. But the woman at the end of the bar might unintentionally poison her unborn child before she felt it kick. The man in the expensive coat who beat his wife might take a fall and never be able to lift an arm again, but the dark woman in the red dress might take his money and run. Or perhaps she’d have finished the job, and Lee would see another soul by the end of the night.
The whiskey sour had halfway disappeared down Lee’s throat; half remained in the glass. He tilted it, watched the reflection of the gaslights shiver and break in the liquid ripples. An unexpected stranger, they read, the tightening coils of fate. Well, well, another disciple perhaps. The people have grown desperate in the chokehold of the white man, and in this respect Lee denies his nature. He may not be a protector, but he will arm them how he can.
A rustle in the crowd, the opening and shutting of the bar door, and Lee set down his glass and steepled his hands. But the figure that emerged from the crowd around the bar had golden-brown skin, not black, and there was an honest sheen on him. No desperation. No rage. No stain. Not one of Lee’s.
But he made his way to the back of the room, to Lee’s table, and stopped with his hand on the back of the empty chair. When he smiled, it was genuine. “I’ve been told you’re the man I want to find for a game of cards,” he said. “Can I sit down?”
Lee smiled back, a shark’s smile. “Were you told the stakes of this game?” Leaning forward, he went on, “Because I don’t think this is the game you came here to play.”
The stranger laughed. And who had the audacity to laugh at a god? Surely no disciple ever had, and no one else who knew him by his name. It pleased Lee immensely, and it didn’t hurt at all that this stranger had a full, hearty laugh and the kind of face that lit up with it. He must have been a laborer, too, well-muscled and calloused hands. Maybe, after relinquishing his soul, he could be persuaded to relinquish his clothes as well.
“I’m not here to ask a boon,” said this man out of place. “Unless asking you to play would be a boon in your eyes. I’m just looking for a game.”
Lee was, by nature, a gambling man. The gambling man, rather. The fact that he liked it was beside the point; it was what he did. And the best judge of a person lay in what they sought, and what they would sacrifice for the chance to get it. But… this stranger intrigued him. Without consulting the gift of prophecy, Lee knew there was something to find in him.
“I’ll offer a compromise.” Lee smiled at him, but if the man had any talent at reading a face, he must have seen the teeth behind it. The cheating god had a smile for any occasion, and so few of them had anything to do with benevolence. “Lower stakes. Make your request, and I’ll match it.”
The stranger pondered this for a moment, and then grinned. There were no ulterior motives hidden there. Who could he have known that would send him here at all, let alone in search of a cheat and bridgekeeper, for a simple game of cards? This man belonged to the daylight, but here he was, facing down the shadows with delight in his face.
“Here’s a simpler compromise,” he said, reaching into his vest. He had no coat, Lee realized, and how could Lee have missed that? He’d noted the man’s bare arms. “I win, I pour you a drink. You win, you pour me one. No questions asked about the contents.”
“I’ll accept that offer.” Lee dropped his eyelids halfway – no way to look up through his lashes at his height, but there was still something of the effect, anyway. People often desired Lee for his looks and movement alone, but a drop of charm usually swayed the unsure, if he’d a mind to. He didn’t coerce – and there was no need to, because for every soul unconvinced there were a dozen simply waiting for an excuse to approach him. “But in the name of sportsmanship, that’s hardly a fair bet.”
“Only one way to find out,” said the stranger, and so the game began.
The storm ushers in the night, coating the streets so they reflect the streetlights. Tourists walk the sidewalks in thin plastic ponchos, the locals with waterproof shoes and umbrellas. Lee collected the first soul of the night not an hour ago – not one he’s been promised, but his charge nonetheless. They did not call him the bridgekeeper for nothing.
He’s got plenty of places to be, but none of them specific. Any grimy dive, any drug den, to the high life of penthouse parties and throbbing clubs. It’s the last option he seeks out tonight, blowing smoke rings and smiling at the people who walk through them and suddenly see him. They’ll see a whole lot more before the morning comes.
The club calls itself Bermuda Triangle, a ballsy move, but it for the most part lives up. A second floor balcony overlooks the dance floor, and there’s a few dark corners where the smoking laws never apply, and the people there know Lee’s face. But Lee has other business tonight. The current business involves pleasure, something to keep him in place until the twinge of dying becomes the low hiss of death. He won’t use the portents in the lights or the pulsing sound to know for sure, but he guesses overdose – it’s the usual culprit. Lee’s got about an hour if he’s timing it right.
He makes his way onto the dance floor. The crowd makes way for him, unconsciously if they don’t notice him – but most of them do. They gaze at him in adoration, and tonight it churns his figurative stomach. Edging between turned backs, he dims his presence until it’s only his actual appearance that draws looks. Oh, he still gets looks, but they don’t take on that worshipful cast. Lee hasn’t come here to find supplication. Thousands of stained souls would pay high costs to be fucked by the god of luck, and Lee accepts their offerings as other gods accept flowers, crushed bills, feasts laid out. Once he knew a god who only took words offered him. But it’s funny what a god will take outside of what they are offered.
Mundane supplication still reaches him; Lee doesn’t have the bulk of some others he knows, but he’s not frail either, and he’s tall. But he’s here to take an edge off. Yes. That’s it. He’ll find that demand, not that offering, and he’ll leave someone thinking Lee another mundane conquest without ever knowing who they really had. Without ever wanting to seek him out again. Get that longing out of his system, and then Lee can disappear into the night with the proper careless abandon.
Oh, he’s spoiled for choice, but he waits, gyrating, losing some of himself to the beat; every god has that aspect. The capricious aspect, the flaw in each of them, the entropy. They are, after all, birthed from the belief of mortals, and mortals cannot truly comprehend perfection, omnipresence, infinity. As a consequence, neither can their deities. Lee occupies his space on the floor only through physicality, and were he perfect he’d have neither the desire nor the motivation to be here at all.
The hands close around his hips eventually. Without looking back, Lee allows himself to be guided and felt up. The man behind him matches him for height, but he’s thicker, bigger arms. Just shy of too familiar. He’s got enough rhythm for attraction, and Lee isn’t looking for a pretty face. Honestly, he’d rather not look too close in the first place. Lee takes the man’s hands and shifts them to the tops of his thighs, a push in the right direction. The suggestion gets properly received.
“Daniel,” the man says, “that’s my name. And yours, babe?”
Lee laughs. Awfully familiar for someone looking for a quick fuck, but then maybe he’s hoping for a good night of it. It’s not gonna happen, but Lee’s more than capable of wearing him out in one encounter. He’ll indulge the question. “Call me Lee.”
The dancing doesn’t last long. It never really does. Daniel palms him through his tight jeans, grinds against his ass, and Lee focuses himself on the physical sensation until his body responds in kind. That gets him a low growl, a harder grind, fingers shoved under his pants to press him closer. It’d leave bruises on another mortal. Lee bares the side of his neck and receives a sharp and lingering bite for it. Another place a mark would usually show up. It’ll be dark enough that Daniel won’t notice.
Daniel’s a bold man, moving his hands lower still. Regretfully, the boldness doesn’t extend to fucking Lee then and there, but then again, not everyone has the gumption of a god. The dark corner they find, still in the room but better concealed, will serve well enough. While Lee loosens his jeans, Daniel unwraps a condom – considerate, if unnecessary – and then pushed him face-first against the wall. “You’re so fucking hot,” Daniel says, drunk enough not to lower his voice. He’s lucky; the pounding music drowns it out.
“Fuck me,” Lee replies, as if a concession, as if he were desperate, as if he had been convinced. Daniel groans and unzips himself, doesn’t even bother to undress beyond that, and gives Lee’s dick a few pumps while pulling the condom over his own. No foreplay – they don’t come here to take their time. He’s already pushing in. Lee braces himself against the wall to push back, as Daniel shoves home.
It hurts, of course, but enjoyably. There’s just enough lube on the condom for Daniel to actually fuck him, which he does, arrhythmic thrusts while he groans and bites and shoves fingers into Lee’s mouth. Every inch the dominant, the aggressor, but that’s what Lee came to find. Daniel makes demands like he deserves them. “Put your hands on my hips.” When Lee complies, laughing to himself, Daniel shoves him into the wall and fucks him the harder for it. The friction on Lee’s dick only makes it better. He sucks on Daniel’s fingers, bites on occasion, takes them all the way in to get a shudder in response. “Moan for me.” The entitlement of this human turns Lee on as much as it entertains him. When Daniel tells him to make himself tighter, Lee almost laughs aloud.
Daniel’s getting closer, paying little attention to Lee’s own pleasure until he notices how far he’s gone, how much farther Lee has to go. Then he pulls Lee back just enough to get his hand back on Lee’s dick, rough strokes that nonetheless do the job. But he doesn’t have the self-control to pace himself, and he’s full-on pounding Lee now. It’s easy enough for Lee to increase his own sensation, make his nerves more receptive, to the point where he could get off on getting fucked alone. That’s how it is with mortals. Still, Daniel groans loud enough to be heard over the music and comes first, spasming inside Lee. It’s easy, then, for Lee to drive himself to his own orgasm, while Daniel’s still reeling in the aftershocks.
“Fuck,” Daniel breathes, and pulls himself out after a few gasped inhales. He removes the condom, Lee pulls his pants back on, and that’s done. Leaving Daniel to slide down the wall, Lee makes his exit. The death he’s anticipating has begun to echo back through time, so it can’t be long now.
Never let it be said that Lee wasn’t a gracious loser. He even took the ace and queen from his sleeve, let them fall conspicuously on the table. Across the table his stranger smiled, nary a smug look about him. He ought to be smug. Never in all his time, and indeed the time before he had come into being but where he had always been, had the cheating god, the lord of luck, lost in his own game. And this man didn’t seem to understand. But Lee was beginning to.
“I believe you promised me a drink,” he says, slow like molasses, with a curling smile. “Though perhaps I ought to have let you gamble for that boon. You could have won far more if I had.”
His stranger laughed, bright and full, and wary eyes turned to him across the back of the bar. Something soothed their suspicion. But then again, the man had that kind of air about him. “I still might. The night is young, after all.” His eyes, warm. His hand, still on the table where he’d placed his winning hand, just as warm.
Lee knew an offer when he saw one. And he would happily take it, intended to – but there was a suspicion to resolve, and of course his forfeit. Rigging the game might be his practice. Consequences also fell under his domain.
“You know,” he says, hooding his eyes again, “I have the strangest feeling I might enjoy this concession.”
“I wouldn’t have offered it, otherwise.” Lee’s stranger pulled his hand away at last to draw from one pocket a vial of liquid as gold as his skin, his irises when struck by the light. “If you’ll bring me a glass?”
Lee could summon one into being, or even summon one of the mundane glasses from behind the bar. But this was a ritual of losing, and not to be taken lightly. He rose from his chair. When he stepped around the table, though, he paused at his stranger’s side. Caressed his shoulder, light but never gentle. Lee’s fingers felt chill against the warmth of it.
“Will you tell the man you defeated your name, at least?” He removed his own hand, as his stranger had done moments before; with purpose, but no urgency. “As a favor. With the implication that it will be returned.”
His stranger smiled wider, no longer guileless. “I call myself Barut,” he replied, and twirled the vial in his hand. “I know your name, bridgekeeper. I’ll have to think of something else to ask.”
The static crackle of responsibility bleeds away after the eleventh death seen to, so Lee loses the bet. He corks the flask with more force than usual and stalks away down the street. Three hours left until dawn, and sleep abhors him tonight as much as he abhors it. He could find another party to lose himself in. He could win a few more souls before the night departed. But the mood he’s in, there’s no joy in winning.
Consequences. He collected them all night, and still he hungers. A city full of the suffering will go right on destroying them, no rhyme nor reason to it, and that’s Lee’s purview, too. He lights another cigarette and breathes smoke all over the junkies on the sidewalk – let ’em see something new for a change. If he looks, he can see what they already see, free of portents.
On the corner of an alley and a deserted street he sits down next to a gaunt-faced girl and holds his cigarette away. There are fruit trees. She reaches up to take the fruit from the nearest, and Lee gives it form and flavor, watches the delight in her unwashed face as she rips it open and the juice dribbles out. “Crecerén como eso, quando era chicita,” she says, rough voice turned soft in memory. “Pero en eso ciudád, nada.”
The green-scaled kachiman has a sweet, creamy flesh and large dark seeds. A subtle taste, but complex enough to capture the whim of an influenced mind. Lee can’t eat the fruit of someone else’s dream, so he leaves with his bitterness and returns the cigarette to his lips. When it burns down, he lights another, this time red-banded brown, and blows smoke rings. They last only a moment before the wind scatters them invisible and formless.
He passes into livelier neighborhoods and breathes smoke there, too. The girl with the knife inhales and starts a fight, slinging words at drunk college boys. The man slumped against the wall outside the nightclub stands up, digging for his keys. Lee keeps walking. They aren’t his, though he could easily claim them now. If they make it back to their cities, Lee might collect them anyway when the time comes.
Inevitably the sun rises, and Lee lets his presence fade in response. No one looks for a ghost in the early morning, but once they see one, they’ll see a whole lot more. If someone’s looking for awareness of the divine, they’ll have to seek it out in empty spaces today. He walks unseen across town, and regains form in the breakfast crowd passing Fareja’s joint. The girls cleaned up well before clocking out, but the occasional sticky footprint catches Lee’s shoes as he walks by.
No Fareja yet, but there’s a woman at the bar with a bloody mary. She doesn’t turn to look when Lee comes in, or when he takes his usual barstool. “You make yourself easy to find,” the woman remarks, and Lee smiles down at his hands.
“To what do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, turning his gaze ahead. “Surely you have better things to do than argue with some upstart throwing a tantrum.” There’s dust clinging to the top shelf bottles, but then, they don’t see much use this side of town. Fareja calls them the décor.
“You exist because there was a need for you.” If Lee were to look, the woman no doubt would be frowning. Perhaps even in sympathy. The bottle directly across from him, further down the shelf, says Hennessey. Good taste, but won’t get him drunk.
He could conjure something, but that would be even duller than sobriety. “I do have a delivery to make later.”
The woman does turn her face to Lee, then. He can tell without looking for her reflection. She shifts, afterward, with the faintest rustle of cloth against cloth. Bright colors as ever. In the more human sense of gods, she has lived far more than any of them, and she’s less mutable for it. “You won’t deliver it for a few days. That is what I see. But you could see more.”
This time, Lee performs his smile, quirks his lips and creases his eyes like he could be entertained, cheerful even. But it’s a game, isn’t it? The interrogation, refusing to confirm the obvious or tell her anything she doesn’t already know, but not admitting anything she might not know, either. Lee does love a challenge. The smile becomes natural, less of an effort to maintain. “I could, Allmother, but where’s the fun in that?”
“It is your nature,” the Allmother replies, disapproving and stern. Her eyebrows must crinkle together, her wide lips purse. Guilt, wielded by a mother who doesn’t know everything, but more than enough. “You have denied it long enough. Continue, and the consequences will extend far beyond yourself.”
And Lee laughs, like she must expect by now. “Have I ever been a god of playing it safe?”
“You rig the game and stack the odds,” she says. “Leaving something up to chance is your whim, not your purpose.”
She must know. She must have seen, or another augur must have seen, or some human oracle must have seen – there are too many sources for no one to know. And they approach him like a feral animal, knowing he will bite if given a reason or a chance. So she must know. She must know, only act out the part as the story dictates, bound by it as they all apparently are.
It’s all ridiculous. Doing something because you already know it’s what you’ll do. His first reaction to learning his own fate involved removing every possible factor and refusing to see it again. He’ll hide in Miami for the rest of time and stew in his own bitterness, if he must. He’ll add potency to mortal liquor and mortal drugs until he can direct his business through a stupor, or until he can’t at all, and the worldly consequences will have to be dealt with by someone else. If Lee destroys anything, he’ll do it passively.
That’s what it means to cheat.
“You have no need to fear the omens,” the Allmother says, at the corner of his attention. “They only speak the truth as it is.”
Lee shakes his head and finally turns to look at her. The same condescending concern as always lingers in a mother’s face, the same outreached hand, the same expectation. “You know my nature well enough,” Lee says, only throwing her words back to see her reaction. But of course, she doesn’t react. “What about it says I care to see any truth revealed at all?”
“The cheat only requires that no one else know,” the Allmother tells him, and then she stands. Message received. “Whatever you hide from, it isn’t within your nature. Something has changed you, my—”
“Lee,” he says. “It’s Lee.”
She smiles when Lee does not, hers soft with sadness where Lee’s was sharp. “You refuse too much,” she replies, and with the idea of walking away she vanishes back into the ether. Lee waits for a moment, and the climbs over the bar for the bottle of Hennessey. It’s that kind of morning.
Lee woke up alone, an uncommon experience lately. He lay there rather than wander the penthouse or go about his business, because the sun warmed one as easily as two, and because as a god he could be many places at once with his attention firmly here. An undefined number of minutes in, the stairwell door clattered open and thudded closed. Indulgence informed all movement, for either of them could be anywhere in a thought, but there was no vitality in that. Nothing worked for, nothing earned.
Barut entered the room carefully, but then grinned when he saw Lee awake. “I’ll admit, sleep is definitely as pleasant as you claimed,” he said, shucking his shirt, “but you really do take it to excess.”
“I take everything to excess.” Lee stretched, languorous, and maintained eye contact all the while. “And somehow I get the impression you like that about me.”
“Somehow,” Barut replied, laughing, “I think you’re right.”
“Tell you what,” Lee said, with the face he usually used in dark corners behind a card table, “come back to bed, and I’ll stay awake for you.”
As always, it got the right reception; Barut always knew a good offer when he heard one. The jeans came off much quicker, and he was already on the bed before he got the final sock off. Lee left his arms up as the invitation they were, and Barut didn’t so much climb over him as charge, landing hard, punching the air out of the lungs Lee kept around for things like this.
“You don’t take everything to excess, though,” Barut murmured into his ear while rolling his hips. “You could. If you wanted to. You know I…”
There would be a resolution to that sentence. It wasn’t pertinent. Lee raked nails down Barut’s chest, catching both nipples, ending at the crease of the legs straddling him. He smiled, smug, as Barut gasped. And they kissed, then, rough and demanding because that was the dynamic they found. Nothing soft or tender about either of them, in the end, and that didn’t require a lack of emotion, but it didn’t require a specific meaning either.
If it could mean nothing, it didn’t have to mean anything.
Barut held both Lee’s wrists down against the pillows and ground body against body for sensation, while Lee laughed in staccato and rose up to meet him. The pressure of cock against cock bordered painful, but pain was a luxury, too. Something a mortal couldn’t instigate. Something the two of them didn’t have to allow themselves in order to feel it. When Lee bit Barut’s shoulder, Barut gasped; when he tightened his grip on Lee’s wrists, Lee groaned unprompted.
Eventually Barut sat up again, without disconnecting the place their hips met, and where Lee had scratched Barut stroked, then pushed Lee’s chest down, while they both laughed at the gesture. Then Lee twisted out of his hold, breaking contact, and they wrestled, Barut with his strength, Lee cheating by ducking low and biting him on the inside of the thigh. It elicited a third gasp, as intended, and Lee got on top for just a moment before Barut pulled his leg and arm out from under him and scrambled on top of Lee as he overbalanced. This time Barut held him down by the shoulders.
“If I didn’t know better,” Barut said, “I’d think you did that just to lose a fight.”
“If we’re indulging fantasies…” Hands free, finally, Lee reached up to cup Barut’s face. Not a hint of stubble touched that square jaw, another whim of the humanity embedded in a god. Rough skin, surely, because Barut presided over hard, honest work, but the aesthetic vanity of the poet he also embodied. His own duality. It made them a good match, the challenge of four possible dynamics, but Lee could never predict – even seeking an omen to assist – where the warrior and the laborer would emerge, opposed to the poet and the romantic. They both had their charm. “I guess there’s worse scenarios than that to get off to.”
Barut laughed, of course. He laughed often, but then so did Lee, those days. “You won’t ever get it from anyone else,” he said, maybe a promise, maybe a threat. “You like being able to fight hard and lose anyway.”
“I like you shutting up and fucking me,” Lee replied.
The rejoinder was something about shutting Lee up instead, and that turned into Lee dragged up on his knees while Barut braced himself with one hand against the wall and held Lee’s head in place with the other to fuck his mouth without mercy. Lee could simply reshape himself to make the entry easy, but he let the restrictions of an immutable body provide a challenge, and opened his throat to take Barut’s cock whole. Each thrust filled his mouth entirely before withdrawing, and Lee swallowed to slow each exit. Another fight, but a fight Lee won every time. The pressure of his tongue, the surrender of his throat, and the noises he made both intentionally and involuntarily all dragged Barut closer to the edge until he came with a wordless groan, and Lee swallowed what he had to give.
Nectar of the gods, Lee called it once, and Barut had laughed so hard they actually needed to stop.
Eyes wide, golden face flushed, Barut lowered himself down to the bed and traced circles against Lee’s shoulder and throat and slick mouth. “Every time I think I could get used to it,” he said, and he didn’t need to finish. Just as well, because odds were he couldn’t anyway. He didn’t breathe, because he forgot to, and the pads of Lee’s fingers against his limp cock had him shuddering but filling again. Divine stamina meant never having to wait between rounds.
“Legs around me.” Barut knew command and thrust it upon Lee just as tangibly as he’d thrust into Lee only moments ago. Sometimes Lee preferred to make him work for it, but the waiting had already lasted long enough. He hoisted himself up with ankles crossed, and when Barut pressed them back down against the mattress Lee fisted both hands in Barut’s hair.
Neither of them ever needed preparation, but none of their arrangement had to do with need, anyway. The thrill of Barut’s blunt-nailed fingers in Lee’s ass was its own reason. They pressed and undulated and Lee hummed while Barut slid his cock across and over his own hand. On a whim, Lee leaned up to kiss him for the surprised inhale, and pulled away smiling.
Barut narrowed his eyes, the effect lost by the intensity of his focus. “It’s not too late to turn you face down.”
“We both know that isn’t a threat at all,” Lee said, still smiling, ever smug. “You know I like it both ways.”
This time Barut’s groan wasn’t sexual at all, but he walked his talk, and Lee did end up face down, ass up, with Barut fucking him again in time to his rough pumps of Lee’s cock. They had nowhere to be, so the morning lasted well into the afternoon. If Lee ever bothered to keep track anymore, he’d have lost count on orgasms by the third round.
Drunkenness finds him on the roof of some fancy hotel. The roof isn’t all that fancy, and it captures more heat than would be comfortable if Lee weren’t making an ancillary effort to ignore it. He’s replaced the flask with a glass bottle now, for the effect, and left the sunglasses perched in his wiry hair, the better for the sun to properly blind him. Mortals, if they stare too long, will go blind. Somehow, so had Lee.
The rooftops of Miami reflect light too well for anyone to hide in the shadows, even Lee. His domain stops further below. This is an incursion, the first he’s made in a long time, but the Allmother had a point. Leaving things to chance is his whim. So maybe he’s been rigging the game a bit too much. Maybe he wants to lean back against the air shaft with his shark’s smile and play the wild card today. Maybe it’s time for some bad decisions of his own.
Lee takes up the bottle again, as full as when he’d begun, and tips a mouthful back. Today’s poison: sangria. It goes down smooth, vivid with fruit. Gone the desire for something sharp against the back of his throat – now he has control, now he has luxury. He presides over his captured territory in the daylight and stares right back into the sun.
The sangria splashes as he lowers the bottle, staining the rooftop before it dries almost instantly afterward. Lee can’t help it; he laughs aloud. Well played, indeed. But the game goes on, and Lee humors his opponent, finally turning his gaze from the sky and crouching near the purple stain. The mark of the spilled sangria resembles a stylized comet, or maybe a meteor, with jagged tails breaking away from the thicker center. Intense, irreversible change, but anyone with a grasp of symbolism could read that far into it. Even without any psychic ability.
It’s in the stored potential for movement, the object acted on by an opposing force and where it would have gone if it had stayed in motion. One could measure it, even develop an equation for it, and perhaps someone has. Or someone will. Lee doesn’t need to, because having the sight means he can simply watch it progress.
The bottle will drop, all those stories down, and crash to the sidewalk below. Six people will enter the blast zone, and they will all see visions for the rest of their lives. The foot that replaces it will crowd against Lee’s boot, and a hot breath—
“Hello, Barut,” Lee says, voice as unexpectedly calm as he feels.
He doesn’t pull away from the hand on his shoulder, even when it lands without looking for a fight. He also doesn’t stand up. Barut says his name, but Lee keeps watching the path of his comet without pausing to read it. In theory it should go on forever. Barut’s hand slides up to lift his jaw, so Lee smiles and allows it.
“I couldn’t find you.” And it’s in his face, too, the brows pressed in and up, the creases beneath his eyes without a smile to explain them. His black hair still curls to frame his face. His face, still so damnably beautiful. “Forty years of searching, and you managed to hide here this whole time?”
Lee laughs again, both because it’ll sting and because the humor compels him. “You never did get the hang of getting your hands dirty. I’m all over the streets.”
On the streets, and in the smoke, and everywhere the ashes go, that’s what they say about him. Between the lights, beyond the door, who walks behind and waits before. That’s where Lee lives. But that’s no hiding place, and they both know it; Barut found him there in the first place. They never would have arrived here if he hadn’t.
Barut says, “But now, here you are.” His thumb moves against the corner of Lee’s lower lip, and Lee permits it. Against Lee, his skin feels cool to the touch, his nails still blunt, his fingers still calloused. Should Lee stand up of his own volition, he needs no hint of the future to know that Barut would kiss him.
But Lee plays the long game, so he lets Barut pull him up instead, still too gentle when Lee saw passion of some kind or another lying in wait. If fate decrees it will happen, he doesn’t need to instigate anything. He sticks his hands in his pockets instead of crossing his arms, and leaves the shades on top of his head. “I’ve been here. Serving my usual purpose.”
“Cheating at cards and spreading your debauchery.” Barut grins, and he’s showing his cards but he always did. Laying it all out. He plays a different kind of game. “Anyone beat you in a game lately?”
It’s a loaded question, but Lee has always played with loaded dice. He looks Barut dead in the eye. He’s worse than the sun on Lee’s eyes, blinding and debilitating, leaving spots on Lee’s vision, but it’s a challenge, so Lee means to win it. “It’s been a while,” he says, and he keeps staring Barut down: I’m not losing this time. “Planning on letting me forget it anytime soon?”
“I’m touched you remember,” Barut replies, and he leans closer, confident. “But since you asked… how about a rematch?”
It’s a temptation. Lee can refuse a bet, but it’s not in his nature either. This bright rooftop doesn’t set the proper mood for cards, though, and leaving the outcome up to chance would only carry them further along to the ultimate end. No, let them hang in limbo. Postpone the legend until maybe the storytellers forget to tell it anymore. Lee laughs, not even slightly friendly, and he shows his teeth. “I don’t think I like my odds.”
The odds are stacked against him. Not by their history or their ability, but the inevitability of what Lee sees in every glass of still liquid, every roiling storm, every splatter of spilled sangria. One of them wins, eventually, but by that time, they’ll both have lost. That comet hits the ground.
A waver, and Barut pulls back a bit – good, let him feel uncertain. He brings up a hand and leaves it there between them, but with intent. He meets Lee’s eyes and doesn’t look away. “It’s not like you to refuse a game,” he says, and reaches that hand further to curl against Lee’s arm.
Too familiar. Lee turns at the hips to free himself, and Barut stops smiling entirely. There’s the heat, not the warmth, as Barut doesn’t back down. Lee says, “I’m already playing one. Why start another?”
“No, everything’s a game to you.” Barut’s voice clouds over. He must have dreamt up a triumphant return, flying back into Lee’s arms as if forty years of silence were some kind of accident. The hand Lee had pulled away from clenches slowly into a fist. Here’s the real face of the lover scorned, once the irrational hope has been stomped out. “You’ve never restricted yourself before.”
“You don’t know me nearly as well as you think,” Lee replies, and leans back against the air duct. “As it happens, I learn from my mistakes.”
He’s nettling Barut now, instead of sitting back and waiting, but maybe the thing about fate is that it takes personality into account. All the more reason to change. But change is tiresome, and for all his efforts it hasn’t managed to take effect yet. And it’s so much more satisfying watching Barut telegraph more and more of his frustration. So what the hell. Lee reaches down for the bottle, takes a swig, and swallows before offering it up to Barut. As it started, let it end.
But Barut knocks it from Lee’s grip just like the spilled sangria predicted, and it sails from the roof, and Barut does step in, and with both hands slams Lee by the shoulders against his air duct. Barut stays there, breathing heavy and glaring, watching the smile blooming on Lee’s face.
“Whatever game you’re playing right now, you haven’t won yet.”
It would help, of course, if Lee didn’t also find this whole display so fucking hot. Barut’s fingers will leave the bruises that no mortal distraction ever did, and his mouth hangs so close to Lee’s own that Lee could kiss him if it wouldn’t mean a forfeit. Lee raises both eyebrows, and Barut actually growls, shoves him again with a clunk of metal to mark it. If Barut pressed just a little closer, they’d no doubt both be completely hard. This is what they should’ve been from the start.
“Take my challenge,” Barut says, low, demanding. “It doesn’t count if I lose a game I don’t know about.”
“Every game counts,” Lee replies, with a curl of the lips far closer to a sneer. His arm, bending at the elbow, comes into contact with a loose fold of Barut’s shirt, and he tangles it in his fingers and pull, a goad. Barut twitches, and pushes harder, mouth closer. Almost there. A compromise Lee won’t voice: if Barut gives in first, Lee will take that challenge. He’ll take it and finish this.
There’s so little distance to go. Barut’s eyes, narrowed; his own teeth bared now. “How many games have you lost to me, then?” His voice resonates in Lee’s chest, his fingers dig into Lee’s biceps, his breathing speeds up. Here now, the taunts. “Are you just afraid of losing to me again? Or just that you’re still going to love it, just like before?”
Lee laughs, cruel as consequence. “I think you’re just afraid of losing me again.” The fingers holding Barut’s shirt flick open, grazing Barut’s side just sharp enough not to be tender, and Lee holds his mouth barely open, just enough to be its own taunt.
He hasn’t lost his touch. Barut closes the distance with all the roughness Lee wanted to drag from him, lips against teeth, and he bites hard. Lee twists his face away enough for it to be painful, and for Barut to break the skin. Now Lee kisses back, the taste of ichor in both their mouths, sucks at Barut’s lip until Barut moans low in his throat. Lee smiles at his victory, but Barut escalates, his hands leaving Lee’s arms, with one sliding up to yank at Lee’s hair and the other sliding down to slip under Lee’s shirt.
He leaves them when he pulls his mouth away, and when he says, “I don’t think I ever lost you, Lee.”
“You have and you will,” Lee snaps, and returns his hands to Barut’s shirt, this time to take it in his fists. “Hasn’t anyone warned you about me? I’m sure they all know by now.”
“Know what?” And the worst part is that Barut honestly doesn’t know, because Lee can see it in the naked confusion in his face, and Lee wants to punch him or throw him to the ground, or just give in to that future where he—
“No, I’ll take your challenge,” Lee says, affected indifference abandoned for now. “Maybe you can demand that forfeit. You want something from me, you work for it. You were always into honest labor, right?”
Barut’s face starts softening, though, and this isn’t the point here, he wasn’t supposed to understand or forgive. He’s not supposed think that Lee’s still worth the trouble at the end of this. “What happened?” he asks, voice gentled, and his hand drifts from Lee’s hair to the back of Lee’s neck. “Tell me what I did to drive you away.”
“Of course you assume it’s about you.” And maybe it is about him, because everything lately is a little bit about him, but it’s also about Lee and the future he never asked for and never wanted to know about either. Lee learned one lesson at least: some things shouldn’t be foretold. There’s a place where preparation ends and futility begins.
“Tell me what happened,” Barut presses, this time at least with command behind the softness.
Here is what happened:
They fought. The same fight as ever, conscience against consequence, Barut’s ideals against Lee’s dirty hands. They hit to hurt. When it turned physical, Lee didn’t wait to lose; he walked out the door and into the night. The diner glowed green and pink, neon shouting all night open. Lee stalked in, ordered a coffee, and forewent the cream to fill it with his usual rum. As he drained the cup, he kept replacing coffee with rum, diluted only when the waitress came around with a refill. They were the only two in the place, the jukebox silent, no conversation.
Temptation drew his eyes to the surface of the coffee. Cut with his liquor, it became more specific an augur, and in his drunkenness he thought to look past the next resolution. Show me how we’re meant to be. A fool’s wish, too sentimental, the kind of question he knew shouldn’t ever be asked without being prepared for the answer.
But he saw what he sought. Years, ages, and conflict, anger and battle, a hand against a jaw, a mouth against skin, a bitter taste in the morning. Barut decked in glory, shining in armor the gold of his eyes, the gold of the ichor flowing from the gap of his plating where a blade was pierced. Dark, the blade, attached to a dark wooden hilt shaped and carved like a cane, held by a dark hand. Lee stared down at his own hand, and pulled the blade free, and held it to Barut’s throat as Barut buckled and fell to his knees. If I must fail, you must fall. Beyond, only empty desert and the scattered remains of half a pantheon.
Lee blinked, and saw only coffee. He stood and dropped coins on the table with numb hands, left the cup still full behind him, staggered out into the night.
He meant to return and end the fight, but Barut stood there in the kitchen and apologized. We can’t help what we are. He held out a hand and Lee took it despite what he was and despite what he knew. He fucked Barut so slow and sweet it ached, and they indulged in sleep, and then Lee woke sometime later and left.
North Florida stretches out flat and ugly, but there’s space enough for Barut’s satisfaction. Lee paces, restless, while Barut finishes drawing the boundaries of the lane they’ll throw within.. The javelin sticks up from the earth beside Lee. He bled upon it when he touched the tip, some kind of charm, but this is Barut’s game, and it may not make a difference in the end. Feats of strength don’t rig the same way as games of chance.
Fair and square, Barut had said, but they both know that’s not true. The god of glorious battle vs the bridgekeeper in sport, however ancient, already favors one of them. But it doesn’t really matter who wins, because Lee gets what he wants anyway. All he wants is closure, and here they are, coming full circle. It’s how a legend works.
Barut walks back across the mud and the dull grass. The clouded sky stole his shadow but muted his golden skin, a contrast to their first meeting; he becomes mundane, only his air of power to distinguish him. Neither of them wears anything symbolic this time, jeans and shirts baring arms, ears pierced but neither ostentatious. Lee goes barefoot, and he stares Barut down until Barut removes his own shoes. Some way or another, this won’t be a clean fight.
“Three throws,” Barut says, and Lee nods. “We both judge at the end.”
It seems the right time, so Lee forces his sharp smile back. It reveals too much, but it’s an open kind of game, and Barut could stand to see the bitterness there. “Name the forfeit, then.”
Barut doesn’t answer right away. He leans down to touch the wooden length of one javelin and then takes one step, another, toward Lee. Momentarily he brings his hand up, and then halts, and if he’s not even brave enough to try to touch again then the god of victory has grown timid indeed. He runs that hand through his thick hair instead, as if this were always his intention. Except then he looks up through his eyelashes as if he no idea what he’s doing with it, and smiles. Lee restrains himself from swallowing, but it’s a near thing.
Barut shifts to stand fully upright, so he can almost meet Lee’s eyes without having to look up too far. He thinks his shorter stature makes him less intimidating and carries himself with a certain amount of power to make up for it. Lee has never bothered to let him know the truth of the matter; Barut doesn’t need to know about yet another weapon in his arsenal. As Barut assumes his full height, Lee stoops claim another of his own weapons.
“The stakes?” Lee reminds his opponent, piercing his finger again, against his second javelin. This time he sucks the blood away, while Barut watches him. Transfixed or suspicious, Lee cannot for the eternal life of him guess.
He takes his finger from his mouth. Barut smiles. “I win, I take something of you as my own. You win—” and Barut’s smile turns predatory— “I relinquish anything of myself.” He lifts his hand again, decisive this time, reaches into the space between them to make the offer. But Lee looks to his face instead. Finding hunger or bravado there makes the most sense, but Barut’s not letting either show – his lingering smile has an edge to it, but not in the aspect of a god of war, nor as an aspect of the sun. The storyteller, faded from gold. The Barut most easily related to, and least understood. “Do we have a deal?” he asks.
He expects to win. Certainly his choice of game plays to his strengths, and none of Lee’s — but Lee will cheat, as is his nature. He cannot help what he is. He would not, even if he could.
“You know what I demand from anyone who challenges me and loses.”
Barut turns that pinning gaze that could fell a lesser being than Lee, that had once felled Lee himself, both in the game of luck, and again, sometime after, in Lee’s bed – turns that gaze to his own javelin. “Maybe I’m willing to risk it,” he says in a voice more soft than has any right to be. The same voice that once whispered that Lee was beautiful, an absurd contrast to the way he slammed himself deep into Lee’s ass as he said it, and how his hands and their unearthly strength held tight enough to Lee’s hips to leave bruises.
It would be better if Barut were vicious, if he would pass his own damn judgement. It would be better if the stakes weren’t so fucking high. A life against a life, maybe. The determining battle between fated enemies. It would be easier, then, to accept defeat.
But nothing about Barut has ever been easy.
Lee finally extends his arm to shake Barut’s hand. “I accept your terms.”
Their hands linger too long, as much Lee’s fault as Barut’s, and it’s Barut who pulls his hand back first. “You go first,” Barut says, a husk to his voice. “I challenged you.”
Instead of responding, Lee picks the first javelin he’d bled on and steps up to the line he’d cut into the ground. There’s three targets, one for each round, so they’re fighting each other in addition to trying each other’s aim and distance.
Lee’s first throw flies true; Lee may not have the strength to match Barut, but he does have the aim and the precision to go with it, and the bodily control to run faster, to stop instantly. The javelin arcs smooth and high, gliding down fast to bury itself in the earth. When he turns back to Barut with a faint smirk, Barut’s staring at him in some kind of shock, some kind of hunger.
“Did you really believe I’m that incompetent?” Lee drawls, for the satisfaction of Barut’s widening eyes, momentary panic. “Setting such unbalanced odds… that sounds much more like something I would do.”
Barut had his mouth open to speak, but he shuts it now and leaves off panicking to soften his mouth and to barely furrow his brow. After a moment he looks back to Lee’s face and touches his fingers to his own mouth briefly. “But you don’t,” Barut says, slowly. “All your cheating is sleight of hand when high stakes are involved. That’s the only reason I won.”
It takes more restraint for Lee to keep from swearing out loud. He keeps his cool. “Did you know this before you challenged me?”
And this must have been the wrong answer; Barut’s knowing smile returns to the corners of his mouth and his eyes. “Not at all,” he says. He takes up his first javelin and steps closer, too close. “Lee,” he says. “Can I,” he says.
Barut knows he can. But since he’s hesitating, he won’t. “It’s your turn,” Lee replies, meeting Barut’s gaze without showing a damn thing. “This was your challenge. At least act like you’re invested.”
It works, Barut steps back, and Lee shouldn’t be disappointed but there he is. Still the same weak excuse for a deity the night he couldn’t even bear to cut his ties before fleeing into the night. Barut’s hand flexes around the ankyle as he backs up to the starting line. As he breaks into his run, Lee shuts his eyes. The charm of ichor won’t override a body aflame with it, essential to it. Every muscle and sinew within Barut’s body is made perfect and carries him powerfully forward.
When Barut skids to a halt, Lee opens his eyes again to watch the arc of the throw: an angle more obtuse, direct. A faster flight, but with less momentum in the fall. It sticks in the mud too close to Lee’s javelin to judge from here.
Lee bends to take up the next, but in the moment he looks away Barut is suddenly there, and this time he does reach out and touch, on his arm, lighter even than before. Lee keeps the shiver locked in his chest. But he can’t, or won’t, summon the willpower to pull away this time, and so he lets Barut’s hand press too warm against his skin. After a moment, Barut moves his thumb, stroking Lee’s arm back and forth in tiny increments, and he kneads at Lee’s triceps with palm and fingers.
“What do you need?” Barut asks, softly, his hand tightening and then loosening again. “I want to make this right, Lee, but…”
“Don’t,” Lee says, finally breaking contact, stepping away. He pulls the next javelin free from the earth and holds it upright between them, tip once again stained with blood beneath the soil clinging to it. But because his mouth is all the traitor he will become, he doesn’t cut himself off in time. “Losing battles isn’t your area of expertise. Just finish the game and walk away.”
Barut sets his jaw as if to argue, but Lee’s already walking back to the starting line.
The soles of his feet find the prints he left before, and he aligns himself to them for the familiarity that breeds control. He knows the Barut still clenches his jaw and stares, frustrated. He knows that had he a care, he could turn his face to meet those eyes fury for fury.
The leather beneath Lee’s fingers is warm and damp, even before he touches it with his palm, all sweat and grime. He’ll leave another stain on Barut by the end of the match. Something beneath Barut’s skin and dried into the wood of his weapons. Something to remember him by. And Lee’s been lying; he wants to leave that mark, wants Barut to remember him for the rest of time, because Lee will remember him and it’s bad enough seeing it mirrored in the man he–
Lee’s feet push off against the mud, and everything slows and silences while he runs. The art of slowing down at the end without the javelin losing momentum comes naturally, somehow, and he launches it in the same high arc as before, stopping himself before lurching over the second line.
It travels further than the first, though not much more than that. Lee turns to bow, a mockery, and Barut’s mouth still forms a tight line. His voice isn’t soft this time: “What do you want from me?”
I want you to save yourself from me. A short breeze picks up; it passes. All the words that lay heavy on his tongue will only make this harder, so Lee says none of them in favor of gazing back, gambler’s face intact, and let Barut interpret that how he pleases. “I want you to get on with the game.”
Barut’s eyes narrow, but he takes up his second javelin and walks past Lee, nearly close enough to touch. Lee stands still, even when the sharp point passes inches from his thigh, and only then does he return to his own collection of one.
The sound of feet slapping hardened mud signals Barut’s run up, and then the high whistle of the launched javelin, the disturbed air of its passage. Lee doesn’t bother to look to where it landed, stretching his necks and shoulders where they’ve gone tense. He ought to simply go ahead and make his final throw, but his legs have sent down roots in the half-minute he’s stood here.
It makes no sense. All he’s wanted for so long was to reach the end, find closure, walk away. Let the ache of Barut’s love fade away, fade into obscurity until he’s just a haunt in Miami dives, granting boons and collecting debts. And maybe by the time his unwanted fate came to pass, he wouldn’t feel anything but spite.
“Lee,” says Barut, from behind him. “Will you at least look at me?”
Lee should snarl at him or scorn him, should walk up to take his final shot. There isn’t anything to talk about would ring in Barut’s head. Stop fighting a losing battle, maybe. But Lee could advise either of them this way.
In the moment, he is weak. He turns, unwilling, to face Barut, and knows he’s fallen short of the mark in at least this proving of strength. Words don’t fail him, but the ones that aren’t false have no business being said aloud.
“I’m not going to force you to come back to me,” Barut says after a moment, like he’s reciting them, like he’s been practicing. Only his face shows how he dislikes this white flag, which he must, because the god of victory should never admit defeat. The blame for this, too, lies at Lee’s fight. “I won’t,” he continues. “But if nothing else I want to make things right between us before we part ways.”
You’ll be waiting a long time, then presses against the wall of Lee’s lungs, its own downfall. Dispassion has shivered and fallen away beyond reclaiming. What sneaks up his throat and through his mouth: “You’ve done nothing, and the rest you don’t have the power to change. There’s no debt to pay. I’ve released you.”
But Barut’s expression only saddens, and Lee can’t bear to see it, so he wrests his final javelin from the ground to end the game. His hand finds its way to Barut’s shoulder, just a brief weight. As it began, so it ends.
He fits himself to his footprints again and breathes to clear the weight from his lungs. And in that moment he does forgive Barut, for all the things he could never have controlled anyway, for all that time he spent furious with only Barut to focus his anger one. It doesn’t mean anything. Lee wishes he could release himself from it as well.
He hones his vision down their game’s path to the dot on the horizon it points to. He loosens his fingers just enough around the leather. He rolls back his shoulders. And he runs.
As with Barut, Lee releases the javelin to fall where it may. The wildcard shot, because after all this time Barut’s still right; with all the bitterness and spite he reserves for the mechanisms of fate, he allows it to win or lose his games. But not this match. No, it’s been decided from the start. Inaction, too, is a choice.
Barut passes him, but he stops entirely to rest a hand against Lee’s face, and Lee, even in the face of all that’s to come, doesn’t turn his own face away. No, that helpless something in his chest holds him still and burning against the small point of contact between them.
“If you’ll let me.” But Barut hesitates again despite the anticipation that hangs between them. This, too, Lee’s already allowed. Barut’s thumb strokes the skin between his eyebrows and ear, and he leans forward to breathe against Lee’s opening mouth.
The javelin stays in Lee’s hand, and Barut’s hand stays held against Lee’s face. Eventually, only the javelin remains, and Barut walks the rest of the way to the start. Lee does nothing so obvious as bringing hand to face, but his mouth hangs just the barest bit open. He only closes it when Barut’s last javelin hurls into the air beyond the first and second distances, the vanguard.
As it began, so it ends.
With a brilliant smile Barut turns back, but just as quickly it fades. Had he expected to win? Had he expected Lee to fight it? The sun has crept toward the western horizon in the time they’ve stood here. Perhaps days have passed. Another story for the canon. Maybe Lee should have fought back, and they could have gotten the dying done now and saved themselves the trouble.
But no. The cheating god has of all things cheats himself the best.
“Congratulations,” Lee says, and finds he means it. The orange light of the wending afternoon glows from behind Barut, but Lee risks blindness again to initiate the eye contact himself this time. “Looks like you’ll be getting those answers after all.”
Barut’s hand, his right, curls at his side, but he doesn’t reach for Lee again. Yearning clings desperate to his face, but still Lee watches, untethered to the earth. If he were to fall, Barut would catch him. This is why he stands up straight.
The words require careful selection. He tests death on his tongue, rolls traitor behind his teeth. Nothing tastes so true as I’m sorry.
They stand there in silence before Barut elongates his spine once more and inhales slow. His breath falls hot and humid against Lee’s face, the weight of the Miami air before a hurricane, but Lee stares back, proud in defeat. “What I would ask of you..”
“I don’t think you understand how this works,” Lee interrupts, alarm jolting through his nerves sharp and electric. “You won. It’s already forfeit.” He crosses his arms. “You don’t ask me for it.”
He isn’t meant to ask. Lee wouldn’t have asked. He would have taken the prize he won and left Barut bereft here at their chosen ground, just a waft of dark molasses and smoke to remember him by. And in time, his ordained fate would have come to pass, and with the force of two gods he would have been unstoppable. Barut should demand his life. Barut should request his power. Barut should never ask, as if he accepts he may be denied.
If he asks, Lee cannot cheat him. If he asks, Lee will give of himself whatever Barut desires.
Barut for his part only stands there too close, too sad, and Lee finds himself uncrossing his arms to let Barut grasp at his arm. How they’ve touched. Over and over again, since Barut found his roof, and Lee hadn’t meant to let this happen. But they are deities created in the images of men, and Barut has always been his greatest weakness. It turns out that Barut could easily bring about his downfall, and maybe he already has.
“I’m asking.” And Barut’s smile returns in increments, as if the sun rose in the west and thus it was now dawn break rather than the afternoon fade. “I always regretted never doing it while I still had you.” His hands warm Lee’s arm, his breath Lee’s face. “I’m asking you to answer: Did you love me?”
Lee can feel his face go slack, his eyes widen, all control lost to the sporadic wind. He should never have left his own ground, should have known after all this time he never shook the shadow of the love he never wanted to name, but now that he’s been asked…
The last dregs of the sun drop below the the horizon, and Lee looks beyond Barut to watch them go. Inevitably as the encroaching night, he succumbs, steels himself for the completion of a heartbreak begun those forty years ago. He witnesses it. He breathes in, out, in again. Then he drags his eyes back to Barut’s face, to witness this as well.
“I never stopped,” Lee says. “For all the nothing it matters.”
Barut leans in again, but this time Lee lays fingers on his mouth, shoves him away. Finally Lee reclaims that sharp smile he’d lost earlier. Now the cruelty begins. “I’m still going to leave again. Go chase the sun, or whatever you’ve been doing instead of me. It’ll serve you better in the long run.”
Now the anger begins to simmer in the tensing of Barut’s shoulders and the end of his dawning smile. Good. Let him walk away angry, and he can resent Lee for the rest of time and maybe he’ll stay away. A futile gesture, in all probability, but there’s the hope that Lee’s downfall will be his own death, and he can at least avoid that sword’s piercing through Barut at his own hand.
“You’re not doing this for me,” Barut says, an accusation, and there’s that clipped tone again. The light diffuses now, painting the grass and mud and both their bodies a redder shade of what they were. “You’re doing this to yourself.”
It occurs to Lee that all the pain he’s caused himself, Barut must have mirrored. He’s thought it before, full of piss and vinegar as he had been, and he’s felt all the more spite when he thought of Barut coping and eventually moving on while Lee can’t escape that resigned dread that’s clung to his streets like it’s clung to him.
He’s still angry. He’s still as cruel as he’s ever been. He’s hurt the golden god he loves and he’ll do it again even before their ultimate end. But maybe the least he can do is tell Barut the truth.
“A gift,” Lee says, “and you still don’t owe me anything.” Barut’s eyes stay narrow, his lips drawn tight, his shoulders still stiff. Lee keeps the bite from his voice for this. “You asked why I walked away. I didn’t tell the whole truth earlier, when I said it wasn’t about you. It is and it isn’t.”
There’s only silence from Barut, uncharacteristic but expected. The mosquitos of the twilight trace across Lee’s feet and the back of his neck, and how thwarted they must feel to be denied their feast. To be certain of having something and crashing on impact, with nothing at all to show for it but the possibility of concussion.
“Until today, I hadn’t read the future in forty years.” Lee looks down to his hands, one then the other, and allows himself a brief respite from the heat in Barut’s gaze. “Do you remember that fight we had, the night before I left? I can’t even remember what it was about. I do remember punching you in the jaw. I had to stop there, regardless of whatever I wanted from that fight.” And that’s the end of his self-indulgence; he looks back up to tighter-knitted eyebrows, more in the vein of figuring something out than solely anger.
“I wondered why you came back,” Barut says, slow and unsure. “Since you only left again after.”
And here, the hardest part to tell. “I had a vision.” Lee brings his arms up, not to cross but to contain himself in. “That terrible specter of all our destruction – that’s me. The glorious champion of the gods, that’s you. But you’re not the one who walks away.”
Barut’s mouth softens all at once, and Lee should’ve saved that respite for a better time, because meeting Barut’s eyes is surely killing him, and maybe this is how their fate comes to pass. Get out easy, let the rest of the world self-destruct on its own time. But Barut wouldn’t let Lee off that easy. His hand comes back between them, unable to stay away. “But you wouldn’t do that.”
“We both already know I’ll hurt you.” Lee spits this, making up for Barut’s fading anger in his own. “Neither of us should trust me. You were right. We can’t change what we are.”
But of all things, of all fucking things, Barut laughs, loud and full-bodied. “Aren’t you the cheating god, Lee?” And no, Lee hasn’t really been that for a long time. Not in full. Not as he was meant to be. But Barut has begun to smile again, too gentle to bear, and it’s lighting up the shadows that crept across their playing field. It’s lighting up the shadows in Lee. “You always liked the high stakes. I’d’ve thought playing to cheat fate would be exactly the kind of challenge you exist to take.”
The right thing to do would be to brush it off. Opposing fate will be the first step toward betrayal, and even if no one had known his fate before they would suspect it now. Lee’s walked dark and lonely paths, but outright rebellion, that was never meant to be his nature. But then again, neither was falling in love.
As gods go, Lee perhaps isn’t the most exemplary representation of a static and unchanging force of nature.
“You know me for the cheating god. Whatever would make you think I wouldn’t be a coward?” His sharp smile, faded somewhat, returns. Dangerous, he is dangerous, and Barut must see that. He knows Lee, maybe better than anyone else does. Surely the possibility isn’t that absurd.
It can’t be so hard to believe. Lee has been wanting to destroy something for a while now. He could probably get behind destroying the rest of the gods. And he could destroy Barut without even trying. There’s the truth. Lee, the bridgekeeper, the lord of shadows, the cheating god, the Hangman, all the names they call him in the faint light of a filthy shrine – Lee could destroy his own lover and then twist the soul of him beyond recognition. This is why he left.
But Barut’s hands are both come up to claim Lee’s jaw, and in all his unbalance Lee can only fall forward to meet Barut mouth-to-mouth. This too is why he walked away that early morning. In the end, Lee is both coward and weak.
“If it has to happen like that,” Barut whispers against his lips, “could we at least make the most of what we’ve got now?” One hand slides down Lee’s chest to hold him by the hip, and Barut’s other remains cradling Lee’s face. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
Lee shakes his head, and he laughs, but with none of the humor or soothing of Barut’s own ringing tones. No, it’s harsh, it’s bitter. “But it will.”
Another kiss, both of them holding to each other hard enough to bruise. This, Lee will carry with him as long as he can keep the ichor leaking beneath his skin. Barut’s will flower into bright colors, and Lee will imagine them when he doesn’t see them again. “It doesn’t have to happen,” Barut says. “The future can change.”
“Not for us.”
Forehead to forehead they exhale from swollen lips. Barut closes his eyes so briefly. “Maybe we can’t help what we are, but can’t we change who we are?”
What’s the difference Lee would say. It doesn’t matter in the end, the way fate accounts for all change; the consequences don’t change for intent.
But maybe it doesn’t hurt to try.