Dereliction of Duty
He’d forgotten just how bloody cold these mountains could be. And that had been true during the day, all while trekking through paths of hard-packed snow. At night? He questioned how he’d survived these climates as a child, sleeping through colder temperatures with less clothing on his back.
Not that he had any intentions of complaining. Halley had spent the trip doing enough of that for both of them, muttering under his breath at random intervals throughout the day, only to raise his voice when Julian dared mention it. At times, he could almost understand why other members of the Black Rose didn’t fancy working with him, whether on acquisition jobs like this, or for negotiations. It was a lucky thing that Julian would gladly listen to him complain about nonsense for hours on end. And had spent most of his life doing so, only to find greater enjoyment in it over the years.
The shrill edge his voice took on whenever he had something (or someone) to criticize — he was certain Halley had intentionally emphasized it the moment he’d realized Julian had an odd fondness for it. Even if, perhaps, he shouldn’t. “The nerve, sending us up here to retrieve some arcane trinket for some client or another. As if we hadn’t already spent enough of our lives in this frozen hellscape. Montcalle was bad enough, but now? We may as well freeze to death!”
“Are you sure you won’t burn to death? You might as well be sitting in the fire, where you are.” Julian reclined as he spoke, shifting underneath the few blankets laid down in the back of the shallow cave they’d found to serve as night’s shelter.
“I’m… absorbing the warmth. Before we extinguish it for the night.”
“Ah, yes, because that is how that works.” Halley sputtered — more than the fire had when he’d first tried to light it. “Don’t douse it, then. Leave it, and sleep.”
Halley’s expression was easy enough to imagine, even without seeing it — furrowed brow, breath held as he tried to find words. “How do you correct my mistakes about fire in one breath, then encourage me to court a forest fire in the next?”
“There are far better things to court. So would you please?” He gestured at the pile of blankets next to him, pretending not to hear his own double entendre. Sleeping near each other was practical, all things considered, but he couldn’t say he hadn’t spent considerable time thinking about it. They hadn’t slept in such close quarters since huddling together for warmth as children, and he had spent the last few years missing that closeness, missing the feeling of Halley directly at his side.
How could he do much more than watch every movement, track precisely where Halley was — how far he still was. Even if, honestly, he didn’t need to, could recreate every motion in his mind with his eyes closed, knowing he was correct. The frustrated kick of errant snow over the embers, the jerking tug of his coat around his shoulders, the adorable last glare toward the dying tendrils of smoke. The cocked eyebrow as he finally looked at him, the barely baited breath at the static electricity nipping at the air between them.
What had stopped him from giving in? Why had he waited so long?
What had he been waiting for?
Halley’s lips didn’t taste the way he’d imagined — mostly like cold and little else — but what did that matter? All that mattered was… there. The tension and surprise melting away as Halley let himself lean into the kiss, lips softening as he let Julian in, let him explore, languid and slow and wanting at the same time. This. This was what he’d wanted, the chance to just be, to take Halley’s cheek in his hand, pull him in closer, their bodies warm against the chill of everything else outside. For just a moment, nothing else existed.
But time moved on, the moment flowed into another, and Julian’s world was no longer just feeling and sensation and warmth, but the soft sounds of their breaths, the fluttering feeling high in his throat that was joy or lingering nerves or some combination of both. And that mysterious gray that could be storm blue one minute and polished silver the next but was something new now. A darker, slate gray — something settled and content in the same way that Julian felt spreading through his chest.
“Well, that was… perhaps a long time coming.”
Julian couldn’t help but laugh. “No, was it?” Halley would learn someday that scoffs and eye-rolls would do nothing, much less stop Julian from letting his gaze roam in the meantime. After all, he always was adorable when annoyed at nothing. “But why delay anything for any longer?” He leaned forward again, letting himself be more sure this time, capturing Halley’s lips in his again, smiling around the surprised little gasp of air, the soft and pleased sounds from the back of his throat.
And it was so easy to continue pressing on, the slow and controlled pseudo-fall as Halley’s back met the ground of their tent. The way that their new position exposed the slightest sliver of skin at his collarbone for Julian to explore, pressing his lips along his jaw, throat, nudging at the too-many, too-thick layers of clothing and wishing them gone, if only it wasn’t so damned cold.
“Wait…” Hm? “Wait, Julian.” There were hands pushing him away — entirely the wrong way — but he allowed himself to be moved, the moment quite on its way out and Halley apparently less than enthused. “Now? Or, more importantly, here?”
Ah. That. “You’re not willing to freeze your cock off for me?”
“Oh, for — are you willing?” The raised pitch of Halley taking offense. He knew that well. “And don’t grin like that. It wasn’t funny.”
“I think it was. But,” he continued before Halley could argue, “fine. Your wisdom wins.” He rolled off of him; pressing against his side would have to be enough for now. “We’ll continue this after we’ve returned to the Rose.” Twining their fingers together came just as easily, the natural fit of their hands as he pressed another kiss to Halley’s knuckles, lost in the thoughts of what was to come.
Although, it might have served him better to remain alert. He might have felt the tension in Halley’s muscles before hearing it in his voice if he had. “Or, perhaps, we don’t.”
Fuck. Had he misread everything? No, that didn’t — that made no sense. Wasn’t all of what had happened telling, and obviously, at that? He was correct — he was certain — but what else could Halley mean? “We don’t…?”
“What are you —? Oh, not like that; I just kissed you! Of course I don’t mean that we don’t sleep together. I do mean,” he flipped onto his side, angling himself for a better view, “that we don’t return to the Rose. We escaped Montcalle. Why sit idle in a new trap — and willingly! — when we have control of our own futures? We can leave. Together.” Now it was his turn to raise their intertwined hands, press a kiss to Julian’s fingers. “Please.”
Yes. The word was the first thing on his tongue, but something held it imprisoned behind his lips. Something that came back into clarity as the lovesick fog burned away and reality returned, unwanted and unwarranted. “I… wait. Where’s this come from? They’re family, Vali is the reason we could escape Montcalle, he practically raised us —”
“Vali raised you. I don’t —” Halley closed his eyes, shook his head as he huffed out a breath.
“You don’t… what?”
A pause, another breath, and words that were cut carefully from steel. “He raised you, not us.”
“That’s not what you were about to say, is it?”
“Because I’m certain you won’t —” He bit down the words again, jaw tight and eyes storm gray. “Forget that I said anything. It’s hardly important.” Except that it was. All of that had been too quick, too sharp, too hurt, to be anything else. But now it was Julian’s turn to be denied a last word, Halley taking his hand back and turning away, leaving Julian’s palm cold with the sudden absence.
“Just think about it, Julian, what I said. I won’t wait forever.”
It had been a week. It had been a week, and Julian still hardly knew what to do about the ultimatum given to him. Thinking about the problem had been about as helpful as not thinking about it, and it only left him dreaming of the feeling of chill lips on his.
Should he simply leave?
“Julian.” The deep voice shocked him out of his stupor as… right, of course. He’d been in the middle of something — in the middle of compiling information. A new artifact Vali had heard stories of, currently kept in a village somewhere to the south. It was only a matter of determining which village, and how to acquire the item, and the man in question had happened upon Julian failing to do any of that. “You’re not usually so distracted.” He dismissed the hunters who had been following him, instead taking the empty seat at the small table.
“It’s nothing, I promise.”
Vali’s quiet hum was almost deafening in the otherwise-silent room as his eyes scanned the maps and reports scattered over each other. “Then tell me what you’ve learned.” And that… fuck. The maps may well have shown another continent entirely, and the documents? At best, Julian could discern some names, but nowhere near enough to put any pieces together, much less with thoughts of the cave still floating through the back of his mind. Bloody… “All of these towns are tied economically? Whichever of them has our prize, we stymie their trade with the others. Soften up the city well, make them amenable to our terms, and they’ll give us what we want. At worst, we just clean up a situation we’d manufactured ourselves. Easy enough, and you’d normally be the first to see it. So,” Vali turned the surface papers over, hiding their words before placing his chair closer to Julian, the play at formality vanished, “that’s enough work, I think.”
He held up a hand, smiling patiently. “No apologies, right? Everyone’s allowed their mistakes, and considering you’ve been pretty out of it for the past few days, well, it sure seems like something happened between you and that boy?”
The sigh left him like a weight he hadn’t realized he’d been carrying. “Is it so obvious?”
“Yes, and probably more than you’d like. I’d recommend talking about it, though, unless you’re just that opposed to the idea.”
He wasn’t, not really, but where in the world did he start? “It’s… he asked me to leave the Rose. With him.”
“And do you want to?”
Wasn’t that the question? “Yes, but… there’s more to consider, isn’t there? Everything that you’ve taught me here. And I doubt I would be alive if you hadn’t rescued us — that’s something I can’t repay.” Which left out so much that Julian didn’t fully have the words for. The home he had here now, Vali himself taking the role of the father Julian had never known, support and mentorship and advice all rolled into one.
There was that hum again, Vali pursing his lips briefly. “And he wouldn’t consider a compromise, even for you?”
“He made that clear enough.”
“Drastic. And unfair, at least where I’m sitting. You two haven’t talked since?” They’d hardly even seen each other in that time, save passing, uncomfortable glances. “Well, why don’t you? You’ve had a week where thinking’s done nothing. See what your instinct says.”
Could it be so easy? Until all of this, things had always been easy between them. So perhaps it wasn’t so ridiculous as it sounded.
“I… thank you, Vali.”
“Only doing my job. Now, up you get.” The easy smile had returned as he ushered Julian to his feet. “Just do remember: whatever happens, you’ll always be welcome here, with us. You’ve always had potential to spare. There’s a lot you could do around these parts.”
The route to Halley’s apartment was one he’d memorized long ago, so well that he hardly had to pay attention to the winding streets and steps. Instead, he could listen to the cacophony of thoughts colliding in his mind, trying to form any sort of plan for what he might do, what he might say, how the conversation could go.
But he should have known better than to expect anything of well-laid plans. Because the moment he stepped through the door, caught sight of Halley standing at the back of the room, book in hand and gray eyes wide, those thoughts ceased to exist. All that remained was the memory of Halley’s skin so soft under his lips, under his hands, the fantasies of just how the weight of the two of them pressed together might feel.
“Julian? What exactly are you…?”
The week had been far too long, and the last threads of self-control slipped from his grasp. “Just… shut up for once, Halley.” Crossing the room and taking Halley’s face in his hands, he kissed him, full of need and want, pressing him back against the nearest wall, hardly even hearing the book as it tumbled to the floor. Fuck, he had spent so many hours over the past week thinking of this, imagining just how Halley’s lips would fall open under his, the taste of his bare skin as he traced a line of slow kisses to the corner of his lips, down his neck.
“I thought I said,” he returned to Halley’s lips, making his point known, only to feel the grin and the barb he was trying to quell begin to form beneath his own.
“To shut up?” Halley’s laugh was a deep rumble, one that Julian could feel reverberate under his fingers. “Oh,” he shifted closer, lips a hair’s breadth from his ear, words a hot whisper across his skin that sent a shiver down his spine, “you should know me better than that, by now.” The soft scrape of teeth against his earlobe, at the exposed part of his neck; a breath caught high in his throat, his hand clutching onto the layers of fabric.
Yes. This. More.
“Hmm, hard to keep quiet, is it?”
“You would have me no other way.”
“I’d have you with less clothes.”
“Mm?” Halley’s eyes raked down his body, slow and lingering, undressing him well enough without lifting a finger. “You first. I insist.”
“If that’s what it takes.” Piece by piece, his clothing fell to the floor in crumpled heaps, Halley’s eyes burning into his bare skin with a pleasant, intense heat. “You’re liking what you see?”
“Very much. Now,” Halley leaned in, lips just barely ghosting over Julian’s, “follow.” A tug on his arm, leading him toward a door, toward a bed that he was pushed onto, Halley taking his damned time to saunter closer, making a show of every piece of clothing he let drop. “I think it’s quite time,” he leaned forward, one knee perched on the edge of the bed as he climbed up, pushed Julian backwards, “to tell you what to do, hm?” One hand found Julian’s thigh, pressed down with just enough weight to support him as he hovered close, the other hand tracing a lazy finger up Julian’s side, up his chest, the path buzzing with gentle friction. Fuck. He closed his eyes, heart thumping hard, breaths turning desperate.
“You can… you can try.” Words were hard to find, drowned out by sensation and feeling.
“Oh, I am certain I’ll succeed.” The slightest, sharpest squeeze of Halley’s fingers on his thigh, and Julian couldn’t help but squirm under the touch. The worst, the teasing, why —? “Don’t fool yourself, darling,” Halley shifted, sending a trill up from Julian’s leg, then from just above his hip, the long kiss pressed there, “I could be far worse.”
The flickering candlelight danced across Halley’s features, burnishing his skin to gold, sparkling in his eyes of liquid platinum. Like some sort of god himself, stretched amidst the tangled sheets as the two of them exchanged lazy kisses through the hazy pleasure of the afterglow.
“Nevermind the kiss in that… frozen hellscape. This was a far longer time coming.”
Julian only hummed in response, curling into Halley’s side, the heat that radiated from him.
“So, I take this to mean you’ve chosen me, then?”
And all at once, the unwelcome reality of it all flooded back in, ice-cold water to ruin the lingering warmth hanging between them. The Rose, Vali, the decision he’d yet to make, the entire reason he’d thrown caution to the wind and come here. He tensed without meaning to.
As did Halley, who pushed him away and stared him long in the eye before huffing out a breath, jaw tight. “Unbelievable.”
“Wait, I didn’t…” He didn’t… what, exactly? He didn’t come here without a plan? He didn’t think that Halley’s ultimatum was too drastic? What had he meant to say that wasn’t a lie?
Not that it mattered, Halley barely noticing that anything had been said at all. “If that — if all of that — wasn’t a confession, then what was it, Julian? How, pray tell, am I meant to understand you coming to me for sex?”
“It was never intended that way!”
“Ah, so you never intended to use me.”
“No, that’s not —” He buried his face in his hands. How had things gone so wrong so suddenly? “I came here to talk, but I hadn’t seen you and I… got lost.” It was a pathetic excuse, and he knew it well enough.
“...Is that meant to make me feel better?”
“I don’t know, Halley. I didn’t know what to do, spoke with Vali, and —”
“So he’s the reason you’re here? You talked with him before —” Halley snapped away the rest of his words. “If he’s dictating this relationship, then you might as well have already made your choice.”
“What? I haven’t chosen — why does that matter? What do you mean?” Everything was spinning, unstable, falling apart, and Julian could barely recognize what the pieces were anymore. Couldn’t even begin trying to find a way to fix it.
“If you need me to explain it to you, piece by bloody piece, then here. I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. He doesn’t care who he hurts if it achieves his goals, and he’s… he’s… molding you into another version of himself. He’s using you, but you can’t see it, can you?”
“Then why didn’t you tell me that? A week ago — or years ago?”
“I’ve told you now.” Halley watched him, eyes softening ever so slightly. “So what will you do?”
Julian could only look down. Halley could easily be right, but that didn’t erase years of memories: Vali taking him in all those years ago, teaching him how to fight, about the artifacts he collected and sold, always patient and warm throughout it all. How was he meant to forget all of that? “It’s more complicated than that.”
Another huff as Halley shook his head, the fight apparently gone. “Then just leave, Julian.” He stood, retrieving his clothes from the floor and making for the adjoining room.
“Halley,” the man in question paused but didn’t turn, “why didn’t you tell me?”
The short silence that followed was suffocating, almost as if the air was bleeding from the room. Or pressing in too tight. Something. “Because you care about him. Explaining this would hurt you, and how could I do that? How could I hurt you? I’d hoped that we could leave and simply… disregard that part. Perhaps I should have known better.” Julian swore he heard a breath, as if Halley had something more to say before thinking better of it, shouldering his way through the door without another word.
Leaving Julian alone in a cold bed, certain that, come the next morning, all of this — the bed, the room, the apartment — would be empty, Halley gone and taking any possibility of fixing things with him.
Edit this block to edit the article content or add new blocks...
Post a comment