(the sweet and the bitter)
Ten Years Ago
Amarant Coral was crushed up against Freya Crescent's lean, skinny little body, soaking wet with their mingled sweat, both of them panting for breath as they scrabbled against each other. The entire scenario looked excellent on paper. Maybe even a little tantalising. Interesting, anyway, at the very least, though you could also call Lani giving a lapdance to the Stellazzio Queen 'interesting', and at that point it stops becoming a compliment. Unfortunately, the details that brought the entire thing down were numerous; the biggest and most obvious letdown was the fact that they were wedged in a mountain crack and screaming at each other at the tops of their voices, the Burmecian dragoon elbowing him in the face as they both squirmed in their dirtwalled crawlspace and were pummelled by showers of pebbles from the top of a tiny chasm. The sweat was out of long ordeal and panic. The crushing was fracturing her ribs. There was a green dragon stomping above them, and it was angry.
"All right, you try to pass me the bag - "
"I can't reach the bag, rat!"
"I don't care! Try!"
Far away, the call of a green dragon is a low and nearly musical noise. It is a long, continuous bleat, mournful, a ululation that echoes off the mountains. Close up and furious, the call sounds more like this: RARAWARARARAWARARARA-EEEEEEEEEOOOHHH. Screamed at high decibels right in their ears, the two warriors were finding it less than pleasant; Freya was ready to bash her head against the rock to try to at least attain unconsciousness for a pleasant and hearing-impaired death, if the worst came to the worst.
One large dusky hand was anchored on her shoulder as her companion took a heroic dive for the bag, which had the effect of nearly dislocating it as Amarant transferred his weight wholly to her. She was forced to admit that her idea for them to make a jump for the tiny little crack in the earth, deep but barely wide, had been a bad one: they weren't dead, but this had to be nearly as uncomfortable. They were alive, anyhow. Surely that gave her some kind of points award. Then again, their situation was precarious - the dragon above them, frustrated and annoyed, alternated between stomping around their hiding place (which let loose showers of rock) and scrabbling down at the top of the crack (which let loose even more showers of rock). Amarant had lost the satchel in the jump, grazing up both his arms red raw and bleeding, and she sympathised greatly only her thigh had been gouged and she was bleeding like a stuck catoblepas. Both of them were singed, wounded, flailing, stupid, clumsy and clutching, panting for survival with dust clinging to their sores.
She'd not felt so alive in a year.
"Move your goddamn foot, I almost have it - "
The crack was more or less cone shaped. They were stuck in the bottom of the rocky wedge, with the satchel at the very bottom, too tight for either of them to move to get it more fully. Freya sucked in the hardest breath she could possibly manage to wriggle herself up, her shoulders screaming as she lifted on either side of the wall, until she heard his low grunt of triumph as the blasted thing was finally snagged. It was more felt; the dragon was howling so loudly that communication was only attained by aggravated screaming in each other's ears. Both of them brought the bag between them, trying to open it at once, her fingers catching on his fingers until they somehow got the buckles undone and got to the most precious cargo: rows of potions, safely padded so that they could survive at least three earthquakes, both of them snagging and breaking off the necks of the bottles rather than bothering with the wax seals. The wedge was immediately filled with the strong smell of something very nearly like eucalypts and cough-syrup and grapefruit oil as they drank, and indiscriminately splashed themselves and each other. Amarant grimly pulled the buttons of her breeches open, forcing his fingers past the leather, dumping the remnants down to make the leather and the underpinning of cotton a sticky mess. She hardly squeaked.
"Did you really have to - "
"It's the only way it'll fuckin' stick, idiot."
"Makes me feel like I bleedin' wet myself!" Her mother - and Fratley - would have given her a frown for that, talking like the daughter of a dustman, but the sudden wet healing rush had her blood pumping too hard to care. Besides, him pulling her trousers open left little room for any kind of dignity. He was right, though: the gash was closing, liquid pooling at the tear in the leather, dripping into her reknitting skin. He dropped the empty bottle with a careless tinkle of broken glass on the rocks below, and rebuttoned her back up. "Ether, please?"
Amarant did not make any kind of sarcastic comment about her tardy use of please, which was just worrying, and he broke the neck off the vial on the rock and passed it to her with their arms all squashed between them. Careful of the jagged edges as he arched away from her to refit his claws, she drank the whole thing without stopping and pinched the bridge of her nose afterwards. Medicine rush. At least it wasn't an Elixir. Those things were poison. They'd had to give Eiko a Megalixir once and she'd been drunk all afternoon with big dilated pupils and claimed she was the queen of the Mist Continent. The dragon was getting ready to flame again: there was a horrible smell of smoke and an appalling huffing sound from it, as if it was a toddler about to throw a tantrum. "Ready?"
"Been ready the last thirty seconds." Underneath all the hair, there was a vicious grin and she shoved her helmet on so hard her brains rattled around. "Hurry it up, rat."
"Give us a leg up - "
There was scrabbling with his hands on her thighs and trying to find her feet as she took the Dragon Hair in both hands, as he suddenly grunted and catapulted her upwards, as Freya Jumped. There was a bubble of fire and cat-sized flecks of oily spittle as the dragon furiously aimed at the first target to emerge: she felt her hair crackle and the air singed and thrust the pikehead down as hard as she could into the more fragile skin in the network of muscles at the wingbase. The dragon's head whirled around to knock her away and hopefully seize her in its massive jaws, but she tugged the Hair free at the last minute and slipped out of range even as Amarant hauled himself out of the crack. She had found target. Sticky blood gushed out of the wound, spraying her face, the heavy leather of the wing battering her back and there he was on top of the head, riding like he was on an unbroken horse, the dragon screaming and the heavy metal of his claws bright in the hot sunshine -
No use, not with dragonskull, and he was thrown off with the dragon bleeding heavily from the head and starting to look like a patchwork quilt with the patches peeling away. The right wing was sagging, the other ripped to pieces like a tattered cloak after Amarant's systematic shredding, her tossed nearly off the edge of the cliff over and over in her effort to find the heart from the back. There were green scales everywhere, as if they were beating a fish to death. Another scream, as she nimbly dodged the claws and struck at the back of the knee so that the creature buckled, with a horrible wet splotch as Amarant finally managed to gouge out an eye and the dragon reared. He was tossed into the side of the mountain, hit hard, and slipped off the rock more than fell. Everything was pocketed with gore, like plums in a really good fruitcake.
And all she knew was the rearing, the exposed breastbone, the hideous inevitability of the sternum trunk and the ribs - and she thrust anyway, a little to the left of the breast with her toeclaws sinking into the turf as she hit bone. Half-blinded and furious, she smelled the rank hot paraffin breath and saw the yellow teeth only one heart-dropping second before the head was sucker-punched to sodding Condie Petie, before Amarant was there, and with the dragon screaming the mountain down he took the heft behind her and they shoved the Dragon Hair home.
Blood jetted. The head fell, knocked them both breathless and off their feet to the slippery ground, her helmet rolling away uselessly and Freya having to turn her head and gag as it hit her red and steaming right in the bared muzzle. The whole world was red, it was raining red, both of them soaked to the skin and her profoundly pink with her face buried in his chest and her arm feeling faintly dislocated and: the head whined, just once, and then it died.
The smell was appalling. Suddenly Amarant did something like a war-whoop, right in her ear and boneless beneath her, alive and hot and fairly simmering in dead fluid as she rolled to her side and laughed. They were triumphant, exhausted, absolutely filthy, and the joy of the defeat was like bubbly Alexandrian champagne: he shook off his claws to check for broken fingers and she heard it clunk heavily on the ground. Her knees were locked into his and she had the shakes, half potion-bends and half pure adrenaline, and his hair was slicked back to his skull with the sticky stuff from where the cornea had burst and his eyes were dark like chocolate. And then they were touching like they couldn't stop.
It started with her claws caught in all that rough bright hair, heavy with it, and then his fingers were at the back of her head and pushing her towards him, and they were wholly caught in the mystery of how they were ever supposed to kiss. Their mouths tasted like dragon wounds and that was absolutely disgusting, and there he was with his lips on her muzzle and a slow clotting crust drying the short fur on her body maroon. Freya's mind recited a rather slow and rhythmic you idiot, you idiot, you idiot, as her hands were doing less slow and even less rhythmic things to his back and his sides and the skin underneath his rough waistcoat and he was smooth. She hadn't expected to be surprised at that - had she expected to be surprised? Amarant was utterly alien, not a little terrifying, and she was finding she suddenly wanted to rip him to pieces and cram him into her mouth with deep-buried and emotionally-constipated ardour. The kissing wasn't going neatly. It was an inutterably pleasant failure, and she wanted to try it over and over and over again.
Her ribs protested as the dragoon was flipped to her back, his hands on her - his fingers could span her forearms without trying, she felt arrestingly like a midget, she didn't care - and they stared at each other, wild-eyed and electrified, her tail trying to knot around his calf unbidden by her and barely making one revolution anyway. His expression was absolutely unreadable.
"You're trembling," he muttered, and it was more an accusation and a little bit a furious snarl, and it was so deep from his chest it nearly lost itself.
"That's because I'm wet through and we're both lying in a bloody puddle of dragon effluent."
The monk looked at her. Freya was red in places and pink in others, like Eiko trying to cook roast chicken. Her hair was an indescribable brown colour. She was singed and ripped and torn; a little bit broken, totally unappealing, smelling like a abattoir. "You are so fuckin' beautiful, Crescent," he said, and then the touching began all over again, ceaseless and cinnamon and shocked.
(She only remembered afterwards how sticky it was, from the outset, both of them congealing and not too fussed about it; about sitting up, about his hands, about his fingers unbuttoning her coat and pushing away her leathers, pushing up her undershirt, about his skin; beltbuckles, too little air and too many breaths, terrified and terrified of what exactly she was committing. If she was being tested, she did not pass. Neither of them passed. It was both of them hurting each other; not wanting to hurt each other; wanting to hurt each other, and desperately, as much as the entire concept of wanting in the first place as if it was all mixed up with the consuming hurt. His hand nudging her thin thighs apart. Her fingers like pinpricks on - and it just one fumble, like they were teenage boys, no goal but the sudden and mutual this, breeches shoved down to her knees and belts everywhere and the all-engulfing weight of his hands. Her own faltered, as she lost first: and she remembered that, him laughing, fingers between her legs. There was no solemnity, only a quiet and profound sense of yes. Freya did not forget.)
Out of all the mistakes she had ever made, that was the one she went into the most fearlessly.
They walked in silence to a lower plain of the mountain, to a small lake carved from geothermal movements long ago: an almost unreal blue from the rocks, clean and cold and sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. They stripped naked - there was absolutely no point in attempting to be coy - and momentarily dyed the waters a sickly sort of red. (They'd been silent as Freya skinned large breadths of dragon-armour off the corpse, to be scraped and rolled later at the cave, the first of their trophies. Everybody could use dragonskin. Tomorrow she would lug the bones down.)
They washed in silence. They ate their slightly squashed lunch in silence. They then flopped into the sunshine in silence, by the grassy banks of the gently lapping waters, side by side and not touching as they stared with heavy-lidded eyes up at the scudding clouds. There was - almost a vortex inside her, afraid to feel, not guilty but empty with lack of reaction. She just felt as if she was fizzing all over like fruit-salts. Not afraid, just - slightly and absurdly shy, like she was a little girl. Just another Burmecian who waited for the entire dance to start with confession, with appropriate long moments set aside for appropriate maudlin longing just like in all of the stories.
"Hey," he suddenly said, and he rolled over to his side, all the wet red dreadlocks of him and the sharp unlovely face; there was more of him without clothes, gleaming ripples of muscles, thighs like bloody tree-trunks. All blue, blue like the water, that colour just on the edge of green in some lights and darknesses - it took her a while to catalogue his big, deceptively clumsy-looking body, right up until she could look him in the eye. (Freya wasn't to be blamed. He had rather arresting tattoos that she had never seen before. There was a particularly eye-catching one on his rear end which was all geometric and snakes with legs and old jailhouse ink. She was extremely proud of looking at that rather than - than that, because upon clinical re-observation, there were going to be some changes implemented. The cruellest but most appealing solution was sandpaper.) "Rat."
"Are you going to bullshit me?"
She had to turn her head to look at him, then, grave and slow and hardly herself: "I will never bullshit you so long as I live, starting now, ending never, Coral."
"Liar," he said. "C'mere."
Something dissolved in her, and she did, rolling towards him in the cool shadow of his body until hardly any sunlight touched her. She had to smile, just at him, just at everything, the way he used one of his heavy hands to tweak her ear, shoulder curled up in his with his arm slumping roughly over her waist in deliberately careless hold. "I suppose we both bullshit."
"Yeah, I pinned that one the first time I laid eyes on you."
"Like knows like." Pause. "Are we going to have a long conversation now about our feelings?"
"If you want me to goddamn drown myself."
"Don't think I wouldn't. You nicked off with two of my sandwiches. Did you think it would happen like this?"
"Hmph. I thought it'd involve us both havin' hangovers in the morning, I guess."
"So you've been waiting - "
"I've been waiting for a while," he interrupted. "And I found out that I'd been waiting half a fuckin' hour ago and you know how you feel, I know how I feel, and this is 'feelings' territory so shut the hell up and just agree to be lovers for as long as your legs don't fall off or something."
The silence was much more relaxed after that. Freya wanted to say: I want you more truly than a lot of things I ever thought I wanted. She wanted to say something flippant. She wanted to say something cavalier. He removed the need, and awkwardly stroked her hair, and she clung to him for one whole precious terrified minute before she folded at the waist and flopped over the top half of his body like a lizard to bask in the sun. There was a lot to be said about somebody else's body in the wake of her long independence: she heard Amarant breathe, slow and rocking like the waves on the lake, watched for his heartbeat and the blood rush through the network underneath his skin and slowly, exquisitely, felt his finger trace the heavy velvet round of her nipple with the rough pad of his thumb. The whole world was heavy and sweet and unreal. Not enough to last, and not enough to savour.
"D'you think we should start back?"
"Well," he said, "Yeah, if you're not up for sunburn," and that was the start of - or at least an affirmation - of something, of them. There was no change. They walked side by side, the same as always; lugging the rolled-up skins between them with all the shadows growing blue and cool, the afternoon early evening-song and their clothes still stiff with blood. It was a no-go talking point, not something to bother with, cut and dried and put away dismissively. They fought like glowering cats over dinner; he took whetstones to their weapons as she scraped the hides, rubbing them with salt and putting them on sticks at the back of their sandy little awful cave. But then, at the end of it all, the blanket was neutral territory, and his back was warm from the fire. For some reason, just as she was dozing off, she thought she kept on seeing him turn his head around and eye her as if he was making sure she was really there. She didn't dream. She did, however, wake up with sunburn.
And if you had to ask her afterwards, what changed, what she was gifted with, Freya would have found it hard to answer due to the world revolution: spectacularly awful tea in the mornings followed along with less spectacularly awful and strangely appealling sex, the whole world coloured furtive and secret, him still criticising her cooking and suddenly nearly breaking her ribs with his defiant embrace. Swearing. Him kicking at night. Foot-long strands of red hair in bloody everything. Laughing until your sides hurt. Still not getting told anything she wanted him to tell her. In a way it was relief, and in another very real way, it was from that time that a panic began; a sort of clinging desperately to the first thing that had ever made her feel like herself again, to him, with the terrible knowledge of transience. She was bandaged, she was healthy, she wasn't thinking of Fratley as hard as she could and it was all right. She was all right again. She wanted to keep that.
And if you had to ask him afterwards, instead, all Amarant knew was: he had her, and she worried too much. Nothing else was worth a damn.