When Skip opened scratchy and swollen eyes, the room was almost dark the fire in the fireplace had burned down low, the room was a little chilly, and his nose was hopelessly stopped up.
And Dante was sitting in the chair, dimly silhouetted against the dying fire, watching him. Skip froze, his heart pounding almost out of his chest. Involuntarily he shivered.
"Cold?" Dante said quietly. "I'll build up the fire." He turned away and stirred the fire into waking, adding more wood.
Skip glanced around desperately. No escape in sight, not even a box of Kleenex, of course. But there was a handkerchief, or something very like it, laid on his pillow three inches from his stuffy nose. Miserably Skip used it. Repeatedly.
Dante finished building the fire back up and poured a cup of wine from the bottle on the table, setting the cup within Skip's reach. He nodded at a bundle of cloth neatly folded on top of his trunk.
"Kix sent you fresh clothes," he said. "They're a bit more . . . subdued, if that suits you. I spoke to the seamstresses, and as Kix's measure fits you well enough, they said they'd not need to take your measure, they'd just add a bit more fullness since you're not quite as thin." He touched a covered tray on the table. "I brought you up a bite of supper, if you're hungry."
Skip mopped his nose.
"Why are you being so nice to me?" he said, trying to sound annoyed, hating the quaver in his voice. "What I said "
"Muír- -- Skip," Dante corrected himself, his voice remote. "You've done nothing wrong. I dinna ask for your love, nor did you offer it. 'Tis my own fault if I . . . presumed."
"Aren't you angry?" Skip whispered sadly.
"I was. Until I felt your pain through my bond. Fear not, I'll not presume again."
Something in Dante's flat tone, in the stiff cast of his shoulders, hurt deep inside Skip, in a place he'd thought long empty and cold, and he fought back a new spate of tears.
Damn it, I'm not going to cry. Kix always cried. It didn't do him any good. I cried the first few times, and it didn't do me any good either. No good in tears. It doesn't stop the pain.
"I wish I had something left to give you," he whispered wearily. "But I don't. My body, my lighter, my Swiss Army knife . . . they're yours if you want them. But that's all I can offer you."
"Nay, I think I've earned more." Dante sat down on the edge of the bed, gazing expressionlessly down at Skip. "I think I'm owed some answers, at least. Such as why you'll traffick in your body but withhold your heart when I've given you everything I am, even the Truename I've never given to another. Or why I can feel your love through our bond, yet you deny it. Or why your words try so hard to make me turn from you even while your soul cries out begging me to stay. Or why when you looked upon Kix, you were so filled with joy, and then with a despair and guilt beyond anything I've ever felt. I think I deserve those answers." Dante reached out and took Skip's hand. "Tell me, mo grá."
Skip sniffled, but couldn't bring himself to pull his hand away.
"What's that mean?" he asked warily.
"'My heart,'" Dante said, not moving when Skip winced. "You are, no matter what. Play what word games you will. You're in my blood, mo grá, in my soul. You can strike at me, you can hurt me, but you canna hide from me, Spencer Thomas."
Skip shrugged stiffly.
"All right, then," he said tiredly. "After I tell you, you'll hate me anyway, so what does it matter, I suppose."
Dante said nothing, only sat there gazing at him, holding his hand, and finally Skip sighed in resignation.
"You saw the scars on my back," Skip said at last, closing his eyes. "Momma and Daddy were well, let's just say not very nice. Daddy beat us me and Kix. If we were lucky, it was just a beating with his belt. We weren't lucky all that often. Kix was smaller than me well, not really smaller, but thinner, more delicate, and I tried to take care of him. Sometimes when Daddy was drunk and angry, I'd make him mad at me so he'd beat me and leave Kix alone. I suppose Momma was better. She was only crazy. We we loved each other, Kix and I. I mean, we were all each other had. So we tried to look out for each other, take care of each other. We used to hold each other at night to keep the bad dreams away." Skip swallowed. "And as we got older, we we "
"You loved each other in the flesh as well?" Dante said softly. Stunned at that gentle tone, Skip involuntarily glanced at Dante, shocked to see no disgust or contempt in the calm green eyes.
"'Tis not so rare as all that," Dante said gently at Skip's shocked expression. He patted Skip's hand. "Mayhap in your world it's different. Royalty hereabouts often marry their kin, to keep the bloodlines pure and the family holdings intact. Great mage lines often do the same, to keep the Gift running strong in their families. Even among those who don't practice such unions, there aren't many who would be shocked at two boy-children, twins yet, sharing such a bond in their youth. But that bond between you was broken, yes?"
"I guess you could say that, yeah," he said.
Dante squeezed his hand.
"When I was six " Skip took a deep breath. "I was in the woods with Daddy. He was drunk and angry about something, I can't remember what, it's not like it was a rare occurrence. I don't know whether he'd maybe caught a glimpse of me and Kix fooling around and it gave him ideas or whether but he he "
Dante closed his eyes.
"Ah, gods, mo grá. My poor little one. And after that?"
"I guess he just couldn't keep a good thing to himself." Skip's voice was as dull and empty as his heart felt. "He had a bunch of buddies he played poker with or went hunting with. I was the entertainment. Share and share alike. After the first few times I learned not to fight. It didn't do me any good, and at least if they were busy with me, Kix was safe. For a while, anyway."
Dante's face was calm, but Skip could see the pain in his eyes.
"For a while?"
"Oh, Daddy came up with a whole new version of entertainment," Skip said bitterly. "I don't know, I guess he hated how much Skip and I loved each other. Maybe he wanted to drive us apart. Maybe he was just a sick fuck, I don't know. But he made me made me rape Kix. And I did it, God help me. I did it because I wanted him, I did it because if I didn't Daddy would and he was bigger and meaner, I did it because part of me hated Kix too " Skip choked down a sob. "God, I needed him, I loved him, I resented getting beaten up and fucked to protect him, I hated him because Momma and Daddy liked him better than me God, I was as sick and fucked up as Daddy. But it kept Daddy away from him for a few years. Not long, I guess. But at least it spared him for a while, till we were about ten. I stayed till they kicked him out of the house, till he hated me as much as he hated them, and then I ran away to Louisville. I was 16 then."
"With Kix?" Dante asked softly.
"God, no." Skip wiped his nose. "I didn't see him for years after that. I didn't have any money, hardly any belongings I was good with my hands but I didn't have any job training. So I sold my ass for a few years, trying to put myself through mechanics training. Not that I cared much. I did what I had to to get by. I don't know, maybe I'd have ended up in a good job somewhere, straightened myself out eventually, but I had to screw that up too. I went to prison a few times, mostly D&D " At Dante's confused look, Skip added, "Drunk and disorderly. And then the big one, murder. I killed a man."
He waited for the outburst, but it never came, and he almost laughed.
Yeah, right. A professional assassin. I'm sure he's real outraged. Perversely, Dante's failure to demand an explanation made Skip feel compelled to explain.
"He was a john uh, a customer I picked up," Skip said. He felt his gorge rising and swallowed hard. "He he beat me with his belt, kept telling me to call him daddy. He raped me and and said he was going to fuck my little brother. I don't know whether he actually knew who I was, who Kix was, or that was just, I don't know, part of his fantasy, but I just went nuts. I killed him."
Dante reached over to stroke Skip's hair.
"Ah, then you've saved me the trouble, muírnigh," he said softly. "For I vow, no gulf between the worlds is wide enough to spare those who hurt you from my vengeance."
Skip chuckled bitterly.
"Too late," he said tiredly. "They're probably all dead by now. Momma and Daddy drank themselves to death. I'm sure most of Daddy's buddies did too."
Dante nodded gravely.
"Is that all?" he asked.
Skip scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his wrist.
"I wish it was," he said hoarsely. "A few times after I left home I tried to get together with Kix, tried to I don't know, I wanted us to be friends again. He didn't want anything to do with me. I guess I can't blame him for that. But I kind of kept track of him anyway. He did a hell of a lot better than I did. I mean, he was depressed a lot pretty severely, I guess but he didn't drink and do drugs or anything. He got a degree in library sciences uh, I guess kind of like Blair? And he did well enough. But he had this way of picking men who didn't treat him very well.
"Anyway, one time when I was in prison for D&D I met this guy Damon. Kix's husband. I'd been trying to get Kix to talk to me, trying so fucking hard to get him to forgive me, and he wouldn't, and I was just so fucking mad " He shook his head. "Anyway, Damon knew who I was right away, and he we we fucked around for a while."
"It started because I was pissed at Kix," he whispered. "And then and then I saw that Damon was was hurting Kix. Hitting him. I wanted to do something, report him or leave or something, but Damon pushed Kix down the stairs, nearly killed him Kix never knew Damon had done it, he just thought he fell and Damon tried to catch him. And Damon told me he'd kill Kix if I left. So I stuck around, getting fucked for Kix again, but what else was new? I could take it, I'd been taking it most of my life. And about a year after Kix married that fuck, Damon got himself killed off in another country, and I thought finally, finally it was all over. Maybe Kix and I could finally be friends and brothers again. And he was so depressed by Damon's death, so alone, that he had nobody else to turn to, and it it was working. Slowly, okay? It wasn't easy, but I thought, hey, finally things are turning around. I started cleaning up my act, getting myself back together. For the first time since I was six I thought maybe, just maybe life was worth living again.
"Then oh, God, it was so stupid," Skip said bitterly. "Kix was going through a bunch of Damon's stuff, a few months later, sorting it out. And he found things. Not love letters or anything like that God knows I never loved that fucker but hotel receipts and things. And pictures. Polaroids Damon took of me. And Kix thought I thought I " He sobbed despite himself, despite his determination that he wouldn't cry those weak, useless tears. He clenched his eyes tightly closed. "He thought I wanted to take his husband away from him. He thought I hated him that much, that I betrayed him that much, and he he killed himself. Took a bunch of sleeping pills and killed himself. That was about a year ago."
He kept his eyes tightly closed; whether Dante's expression was the contempt he deserved or the pity he didn't deserve, he didn't want to see it.
"So now you see what a pathetic bastard you picked up out of the gutter," Skip said tiredly. "I didn't deserve saving, I don't deserve protecting, and I sure as shit don't deserve anybody's love, much less yours. But you wanted answers, and now you've got them. I hope you're satisfied."
The soft touch of Dante's fingers against his cheek startled Skip so badly that he nearly came up off the bed. Involuntarily, Skip's eyes flew open, but what he saw in Dante's eyes was neither contempt nor pity. Only . . . understanding.
And love, a love that shook Skip to the core of his soul.
"Ah, no, muírnigh," Dante murmured, tracing the line of Skip's cheek. "I'd not be satisfied by less than a door between the worlds and through time itself so that I could lay my hands on each and every one who did you such hurt, body and soul. And I vow that were I granted such a boon, the pain those ones would suffer would dwarf the pain they caused you even as the fire of the sun dwarfs the tiniest candle. They would pay you such a penance in pain and blood, mo grá, as my world or yours has never seen, and I would savor their screams like the sweetest wine. But even that would not be enough to satisfy me, mo grá, unless I could find a way to wipe the pain from your heart and soul and give you back the happiness and innocence they stole from you."
Dante cupped Skip's face tenderly in both hands, meeting his eyes squarely.
"I've touched your soul, muírnigh, and there's no evil to be found there. You're deeply wounded, so deeply, but pain and despair aren't the same as wanton cruelty. If you're looking for my judgement, mo grá, it's this: Your only crime is that of being born no more than human, and for that crime, if such it is, you've been far more than justly punished."
Contempt or hatred or condemnation or even pity Skip might have borne, but the love and acceptance in Dante's voice, in his eyes, broke Skip as nothing else could, and helplessly he sobbed, deep wrenching wails that tore up raw and bloody from the depths of his soul. And thank God Dante said nothing else, just slid into the bed beside him and held him, let him cry until once again exhaustion won out over tears. But this time sleep was peaceful in Dante's arms, a healing rest that came in the wake of lancing a long-infected wound, and no ghosts of the past haunted his dreams.
Waking in warm arms, Skip yawned and stretched and winced. It had to be the middle of the night; the room was lit only by the fire, which had almost burned down again. His head ached abominably, his nose and throat felt as if they'd been sandblasted, his bladder was about to burst, and his stomach informed Skip that he'd mistreated it badly of late.
Skip rolled over, jumping slightly to realize that Dante, who had apparently joined him under the covers at some point, was (a) naked and (b) awake and watching him.
"Sorry," Skip muttered. "I didn't mean to wake you."
Dante smiled slightly.
"I'm a light sleeper, muírnigh. Or would you still rather I not call you that?"
"No, I " Skip swallowed. "I'm glad you still want to."
"Mo grá, my confession would be far longer and darker than yours if I were to make one, which I won't," he said. "Let it suffice that my hands are no cleaner than yours, my regrets no fewer, eh? There's no changing the past, mo grá. But the present and the future, there we have choices, and I'd dare to hope that I'm a part of the choices you make, as you are of mine."
Skip smiled despite himself, allowing himself to feel the first stirrings of hope again. Choices? What choices? So far nobody had offered to send him home, or even intimated it was possible. Simon and James didn't trust him enough to let him go to the bathroom by himself, much less to let him pursue any kind of a life outside the castle and that thought reminded Skip of his bladder.
"Um, Dante?" Skip said. "Um, where's the bathroom?"
Dante raised his eyebrows.
"You want to bathe now?"
"No, I want to piss now," Skip said ruefully. "What do you call that room?"
Dante looked amused.
"'Tis hardly a room, even in a noble home, muírnigh," he chuckled. "But there." He gestured to a wooden door which Skip had assumed was a large cupboard.
Skip slid out of bed, wincing at the cold stone under his bare feet, and opened the door. Inside the wooden cubicle, only a little larger than a phone booth, was a familiar seat-like arrangement.
Dear God, to quote Beetlejuice, it's an indoor outhouse. Judging from the rather unnerving draft coming up, there had to be a deep shaft beneath. Surprisingly it didn't exactly stink, but it had an odd odor of it reminded him of
"That smells kind of like the baths," Skip realized when he emerged from the cubicle. The arrangement also answered his other question why a second wash basin and pitcher of water was situated on that side of the room.
"And well it should," Dante chuckled. "The springs come up into the High Lord's bath, and from there pipes carry the water to the other baths in the castle. From those baths, the pipes carry the water out through the privies, then out of the castle. 'Twas Blair's design."
"Wow. That's a good idea," Skip admitted, sliding back into bed and shivering. The room had cooled considerably.
"Cold, muírnigh?" Dante murmured, pulling Skip close and curling warmly against his back. "I'll soon warm you."
"Mmmmm." Skip couldn't even remember anymore how it had felt to be held with such tenderness, cuddled close against the cold with no need to fear or dread the cost of such simple contact. "This feels so good."
"Aye, so very good," Dante purred in his ear.
Skip felt the hot, hard length pressing against his back and froze, a spike of fear stealing his breath.
"Dante I can't I mean "
Dante stilled against him, breath hissing in in realization.
"Ah, muírnigh, I'm sorry," he whispered. "After such memories as you've shared, I should have thought. It's all right, mo grá, we'll rest together, eh?"
"No, I didn't mean " Skip took a deep breath and turned in Dante's arms. "I mean, I know I offered before, but I don't really like, you know, uh, that. Being fucked. It scares me and it hurts and "
"Shhh, shhhh," Dante soothed, stroking Skip's back. "No need for that, then, leanbán. There are so many other pleasures. May I show you, muírnigh? May I love you?"
Part of Skip quivered in fear, protested that it was too soon, that his pain was still too raw and his memories too close, but another part craved that closeness, begged for that wholeness and belonging he'd felt in Dante's arms. It was that part of Skip that raised his lips to Dante's and murmured hungrily, "Yeah, oh, yeah, please, Ciarán," and rejoiced at the wondering joy in those emerald eyes.
And it was still so new and unfamiliar, the incredible gentleness with which Dante stroked and caressed his skin, soft lips that unhurriedly explored every inch of him with many leisurely pauses to investigate all the places that made him gasp or sigh or cry out softly. Skip would never have dreamed that the softest brush of fingertips across his nipples could send a bolt of lightning straight to his cock, or that gentle nibbles at the back of his knees could make his skin shiver into gooseflesh, or that the silken brush of Dante's long hair in the sensitive creases of his thighs could send sweet fire racing through his veins. And when the moist heat of Dante's mouth enfolded his aching erection, no control, no hesitation, Skip cried out and shot off in seconds like a teenager, a fast hard flash of pleasure that left his body drained yet still humming, vaguely unsatisfied. When Dante slid back up into his arms, Skip pulled his head down and tasted himself in Dante's unhurried kiss.
"But you," Skip whispered. "Don't you want "
"No need, Spencer," Dante murmured against his mouth. "I can wait."
"No, I want " Skip pushed tentatively at Dante, then harder, rolling them over so he lay on top of the long, muscular body. "I want to make you feel good too," he whispered.
"Ah, mo grá, you do," Dante groaned as Skip slid over him. Skip moved down, kissing Dante's chest and belly, and Dante shuddered, moaning as Skip tasted that gorgeous hard length for the first time.
Skip liked to pride himself that he was damned good with his mouth, and he reveled in the way he could draw pitiful whimpers of needy pleasure from Dante, but before he could finish, Dante pulled him back up onto his chest again.
"Not like that, mo anam," Dante panted against his throat, thrusting upward with his hips, the friction lighting a renewed spark in Skip's groin. "Together again, yes?"
"Oh, God, yeah," Skip groaned, moving in rhythm with Dante. It was too soon for him to get hard again, he wasn't in that good a shape yet, but God it felt good, felt damned good, and Dante's mouth hot on his throat felt even better. And then Dante was pushing something into his hand, and Skip felt the familiar shape of Dante's hair spike and got the idea, and his cock got the idea and tried even harder to go for seconds. Skip reached down and carefully made a shallow cut on Dante's chest, and the first touch of his mouth against it sent a pleasure resonating between them so great that it completely eclipsed the faint, remote sting of Dante's teeth. And Skip was coming, dear God was he ever coming, and whether it was his cock or Dante's cock or neither or both, he had no idea and no care whatsoever. All he knew or cared at that moment was the absolute certainty, the firsthand knowledge in that single moment of union that he was not alone, that he was loved, that he was whole, that someone in the universe saw him as worthy and beautiful.
And in the dim light of the slowly rising sun peeking in around the shutters, held warm and safe and sticky and more than a little whiff in Dante's arms, Skip yawned and stretched drowsily and thought about the coming day.