This is for abyssgirl, who asked for non-platonic Raoul/Lerant. I have obliged.

The Less Travelled Way

Not much time had passed since Lerant of Eldorne had left his home fief and come seeking his fortune, or destiny, or whatever you might choose to call it, but enough for him to realise how much his future was defined by the past of others.

"Traitor," they called him. "Untrustworthy," too. "Taint of association," was one of the more polite phrases he'd heard muttered when his back was turned. "Wouldn't touch the brat with yours, mate," was one of the more choice expressions regarding his employability.

He was angry and bitter. Those emotions, so familiar to him, he let rise to the surface. The hurt, the loneliness, and the growing fear bubbled beneath. The hope, the delicate shard of hope for a fresh start that he had nurtured so carefully, was sinking beyond his reach.

He had one night, one night before his funds where exhausted and he would have to return home, in shame and ignominy, to go mad with frustration and thwarted dreams in the rambling halls of Eldorne House, the spectres choices not his own as guards and companions for the rest of his days.

One night. He was going to make the most of it.

aAaAaAaAaAa

The Inn was heaving, packed to the rafters with a fairly representative cross section of the Corus population. There were flower girls and thieves, enough merchants to keep them busy, a pile of soldiers enjoying their leave, and a smattering of nobles trying to look inconspicuous. Lerant sat at the bar and watched them all through a haze of beer. One small group of soldiers, looking fine as you like in the silver and blue uniforms of the King's Own, kept drawing his gaze. There were maybe half a dozen of them, laughing and downing drinks, flirting with the barmaids and the flower girls, looking so bright to Lerant's jaded eyes, just a little larger than life. That was all he wanted, to be one of them, to be part of that shining group, to belong.

He did not realise how much he was staring. He didn't realise, fixed as he was soldiers, that some one was watching him.

aAaAaAaAaAa

Sir Raoul of Goldenlake and Malorie's Peak, Knight Commander of the King's Own, sat nursing a small tankard of some Gods-awful, indefinable juice that was the only non-alcoholic option in the building, and wished to be at home, or drunk, or dead, in no order of preference. He had been dragged out by some of the men, and they had been so glad to be back, and alive, that he could hardly refuse. He had almost managed, but then Domitan had looked at him with those blue eyes, and smiled, that cursed smile, and Raoul was putty. He had joined in their laughter, bought them drinks, and felt more and more wretched as the night progressed, but he would have sat through twice as long, a hundred times as long, for another of those smiles.

This was why the sobriety mattered; one of the reasons, anyway. He needed to be in control all the time, not just in battle or training or in thrice accursed meetings, but at times like this, when he just wanted to reach out and…

No.

That way madness lay, as he knew well enough. This was the only way it could be.

Raoul dragged his gaze away from the sight of a flower girl wrapped about Domitan's neck, purring like a satisfied cat as she tangled fingers in his dark hair. It was that or scream. As he scanned the room, he noticed a youth staring at Dom with savage intensity. He was nothing like Dom; this boy was light, lean, his long limbs coiled about his body. His dark blond hair flopped over his high forehead into his eyes, which could have been grey or black, Raoul couldn't tell in the smoky half light of the bar. There was a sense of motion stilled about him, of frustration and tension scarcely contained. He took a long, and just slightly in-coordinated swallow from his tankard, his eyes never leaving Dom, who was now tickling the girl in his lap. His lips, which might have otherwise been slim and delicately curved, were pressed into a thin, perfectly straight line.

Raoul knew what frustration looked like - but he had never before seen Dom inspire it in such quantities. Other than the last time he had looked in the mirror, obviously.

Long enough, Raoul thinks, that he's sat there. He's going to go back to the Palace, back to his rooms, and lock the door. He's not going to drink, he's not going to hit anyone or anything, he's just going to take deep breaths, deep slow breaths, until he has all of this back under control again. When he sees Dom and the boys tomorrow, he'll laugh at their stories, say I-told-you-so about their hangovers, and wink over Dom's romantic escapades. No one will know what's going through his head.

At least, that was what he was going to do. Until he noticed the slim blond youth was now looking at him.

aAaAaAaAaAa

Lerant hadn't seen the big man at the back of the group, sitting quietly with his little tankard grasped between his paws, held tight like it was his only link to sanity in a world gone mad. He saw nothing in those sloe black eyes, nothing he could name, anyway, but he saw the tightness of the big muscles across the man's chest, the play of tendons in his forearms as he drummed thick fingers on the table surface. He recognised, alcohol numbed memory finally providing a name, Raoul of Goldenlake, Commander of the King's Own. Now he, Lerant thought, was a man to aspire to. This was a commander, no boy carousing with flower girls, telling bad jokes and drinking worse beer. This was real soldier, scarred and hardened by battle, only at home in combat, and dreaming of it even whilst his subordinates played about him. The pretty dark haired sergeant, with the stupid slattern crawling all over him, was forgotten to Lerant's mind. This man, this bear of a man, was all he could see.

Then those inscrutable black eyes, he realised, were meeting his.

aAaAaAaAaAa

Raoul didn't know what to do. Neither, on the other side of the bar, did Lerant. They stared at one another, long moments stretching out, the bustle of the others forgotten. Raoul breaks the contact first. He mutters something to his companions about going home - they do not hear him and do not notice him leave, being half drunk and entirely concerned with the charms of the young women all about - and staggers, clumsily jostling several people in his hurry to get to the door.

Lerant gapes for a second, then scrambles after Raoul. He has to talk to him, has to make him see how much he wants to be a soldier, like him.

"Sir, sir!" Lerant gasps, just outside the doorway. He catches Raoul's elbow, tugs at the heavy linen of his shirt. If Lerant hadn't been drinking all night, his pride would never let him make such a gesture, but time is running out and all he knows is desperation.

Raoul stops at the touch, and just manages to stand still, stopping his muscles from trembling.

"What?" he rasps.

"My Lord Raoul," Lerant said, and now he has his attention he isn't sure what to do. "My Lord…I want to serve, I want to be a soldier…like you."

Hell's teeth, what sort of joke is this? Raoul thinks; how could anyone want to be like this? He turns in surprise to look Lerant in the eye. This is a mistake.

His eyes are dark grey, like a storm cloud just before the lightning begins. Raoul sees that now, in the smoky torchlight, and he sees painful hope in those eyes. He smells the liquor on the boy's breath, coming fast in exertion, or fear, or excitement…

"What's your name?" just Raoul manages to say, for his lips are dry and chest feels as if there are iron bands about it.

"Lerant of Eldorne, my lord."

"Eldorne?" Raoul asks before he can stop himself. He doesn't know where his control has gone, this night.

The hurt appears in Lerant's eyes instantly, as if it was always there, just behind the hope. He seems to deflate slightly, the tension and drive leaving his lithe body; he's smaller now he's only filled with muscle and bone.

"You're all the same," he breaths to himself. "I was a fool." He looks into Raoul's black eyes. "I won't trouble you further." Lerant rips off a salute and begins to walk away.

Raoul stands open mouthed. This boy, this Lerant, has him totally off balance. He has gazed into his eyes like a long lost love, then walked away. No one had ever looked at Raoul like that. There is fondness, and pity often; once or twice there has been lust; but no one has ever looked at him like this boy has. The last of his carefully nurtured self control leaves him - or does he let it go?

"Lerant!" he calls and dives after him. He catches the boy at the mouth of an alley, grabs his arm and pushes him against the rough wall.

"What do you mean, walking away from me?"

"Well, you said it, sir," Lerant spits, fury and embarrassment burning in his face. "Eldorne. I don't need any more explanation. You'll never let a traitorous brat like me anywhere near your precious Own." He twists against Raoul's grip, but he might as well try to burrow through the wall.

"You think?" Raoul murmurs, and shakes his head. This isn't about him, at all. It's about what he represents, people's idea of him, just like it always is.

"It's been the same everywhere else." Lerant scowls. He has a good scowl, all artful sculpted eyebrows and cheekbones.

"You think I'm the same as everyone else?" Raoul leans close, voice barely a whisper. He feels Lerant wriggle slightly, between his body and the wall; the boy's lean muscles twist against his bulk. Raoul feels dizzy, as if he's walking on the edge of a precipice and falling is only one step away.

"I knew Delia." Raoul pauses. He didn't notice the family resemblance before, when the hope lit Lerant's face; he can see echoes of Delia's pride and distain in the boy's face, now. She used to spin all comers into an orbit around herself, attraction and lust serving as her gravity. Raoul wonders if it is a family trait.

"I…" Lerant seems unsure, seems very still for a second. He seems lost for words, and understanding. His lips twist, parting, as if to speak, and Raoul sees the curve of them, feels Lerant's breath against his cheek. Raoul closes his eyes, just for a second, and tries to hold onto the moment.

"No one else admits they knew her." Lerant sounds a little unsure.

"I knew her. Crazy about her, for a while."

Lerant snorts. His lips carve into a smile.

"You look like her when you smile," Raoul says, traitor words out before he can stop them.

"I'm nothing like that witch," the words are full of sudden venom, and Raoul feels him tense up again. He thinks Delia had more control. But then she knew the game she was playing. Raoul realises, that awful second, that Lerant doesn't know there even is a game.

"I'm sorry," he growls, and lets go of Lerant's arm, takes one step back. He can't quite take another. They look at each other, and maybe Lerant sees some of the emotion in Raoul's black eyes. He tilts his own head on the side, as if he doesn't quite know what will happen, but is curious and slightly impatient to find out.

In that moment, in that one second when Raoul is telling at himself to go, to get out of this madness, in that insane moment, he reaches out and touches Lerant's cheek. Raoul is quite surprised at himself. He is even more astonished when Lerant reaches up and places his own hand over Raoul's.

It could be nothing, but here, in this place, it is a symbol, a sign, of permission granted. Black eyes stare, not quite believing, into grey. Then, not taking his eyes off Lerant, Raoul kisses him. There is some restraint there, at the start, but it is soon lost, surrendered to the moment. Lerant has never felt anything like this, never felt need like this before. He cannot help but respond, lips moving and opening. The other man takes hold of his body, gentler but no less powerful than before. Lerant wraps his fingers in Raoul's black curls, tugs them, and is satisfied with the little moan he gets in response. He likes this, he realises. He likes the power he has, here, the control. Some giddy feeling rises through his chest, like bubbles in champagne; this is his…he realises that the man currently nuzzling his earlobe had said he knew Delia, that he was crazy about her, that Lerant looked like her.

Raoul felt his body shoved back with explosive force. Lerant's face is aglow with poisonous fury.

"I said I was nothing like her. What the hell makes you think you can have me instead of her?"

Raoul can say nothing. He feels weak with disappointment. As Lerant walks away, Raoul collapses against the alley wall, and scrubs his face in his hands. He didn't care the boy was Eldorne, couldn't he see…But no one ever saw things the way Raoul saw them. This was another thing he was going to have to make right, another episode to tuck away. He stood and made his way home by the dark and less travelled ways, to sit in the dark and take slow, deep breaths.