The highest room in the old crumbling Mage’s Tower was accessible now only by scaling the uneven stone walls supporting it, after the nasty storm that had heralded Taryn Draconis’s birth had wiped out access to the first few levels and the stairs leading up. The tower as a whole was shifty and dangerous, threatening to crash down into the courtyard every time there was a high wind. Taryn had been climbing it since he became clever enough to escape his nurse, and fourteen years later he could still swarm up the side of it like he’d been born on its rocks. The pack slung across his back didn’t even lend a hesitation to his movements and he’d left his sneakers tucked neatly into a hidden recess down below so he could use his toes to help him climb. Overhead the summer sun glowed sullenly through the cloud cover and he paused a moment to enjoy a stray breeze.
He heaved himself through a gap into the room at the top—the room that had once housed the mage that had given the tower its name, though that had been hundreds of years earlier—and sprawled out on the dusty floor to catch his breath. The wind screamed up this high, gusting through the many gaps and chinks in the walls, but he’d brought some blankets up earlier in the summer and enjoyed sitting with them wrapped around him while the wind shrieked and sang through the stones. Rolling over, he sat up and pulled the blankets across his lap, hunting through his pack for his book, a packet of cookies, and his bottle of cool water.
He lost track of time, absorbed in his reading, and only realized he was no longer alone when a pebble bounced off his forehead. He looked up, blinking, and made a face at his younger sister, Arei, where she sat cross-legged in the empty window.
“Mom wants to see you,” she announced. “She wants us both to go to the Matches today.”
“Is jumping off this tower an option instead?” Taryn asked, sliding his bookmark into place and shoving the book into his pack.
“Nope,” Arei said cheerfully. “She said you need to start acting more like a Draconis prince and less like a worm.”
Taryn sighed. “Tell her I’ll be down shortly.”
“Don’t worry, big brother.” Arei blew him a kiss. “I’ll protect you.” She swung herself out the window and flashed her sharp grin, thick black curls gusting around her face in the wind. “Besides, there’s beer there.”
She dropped out of sight before Taryn could think of an appropriate reply but he still stuck his tongue out at the section of empty air where she had been before reluctantly gathering his things. He took his time climbing down, ignoring the sway of the tower and the wind plucking restlessly at his shorts and T-shirt. At the bottom he exchanged his pack for his sneakers and shoved his feet into them. His steps dragged as he approached his mother’s meeting room, where she spent most of the day speaking to officials and doing paperwork, and he paused a moment outside the heavy wooden door to collect himself before pushing it open and going inside.
His mother had been late in settling down and having children—she’d spent most of her teens to her thirties beating neighbouring clans into submission—but even the lines on her face and the grey in her elegant dark curls couldn’t diminish her beauty. Her children took after her so strongly that Taryn had heard a man in a pub joke that she had just split herself by osmosis, but the resemblance stopped for Taryn at appearance. Arei had their mother’s fierce temper and love for battle, but Taryn himself preferred to spend his time alone, reading and studying. He couldn’t even claim that he took after his father, a man who had also been his mother’s General until he had run headlong into a bullet shortly after Arei’s birth.
His mother looked at him now, her expression giving nothing away, her hands folded neatly in front of her on the polished wooden surface of her work table. Taryn struggled not to fidget and lost the fight, digging at the plush red carpet with the toe of his sneaker. He was suddenly aware that his clothes were old and faded, and that the wind had tousled his hair around his horns until it stuck out in all directions. She only arched a slim eyebrow at him and he blushed, looking down at his feet when she sighed.
“You’ve heard the lecture, Taryn, so I will spare us both. Go with your sister to the Matches today.”
“I don’t want—”
“I don’t believe it was a request.” Frustration laced her voice. “Why can’t you just be normal?”
“Sorry I was actually born with more than two brain cells, Mom. I don’t see the point in constantly beating the shit out of each other.”
“To prepare for war.”
“The war’s over. You won, remember? Why can’t any of you let it go?” He ran both hands back through his hair. “It makes no sense. You’re basically saying, ‘Here, I’ll let you practice your skills constantly so you can throw me over when I’m too old to do shit about it’.” He risked a look at her face and flinched slightly at her complete lack of expression. “Besides, you’ve got Arei to follow in your beating-people-up footsteps. Why can’t you leave me out of it?”
“Because you’re my son. Go with Arei. That is a command.”
He sketched her an elegant, mocking bow and left the room, resisting the urge to slam the door behind him like a child. He stopped at the Mage’s Tower first to pick up his pack and book, then reluctantly went to meet Arei. She drove and he stared morosely out the window at the countryside—still pockmarked and beaten from the war and the various skirmishes since—until they pulled into the big gravel parking lot behind the fields set up for the Matches.
“Are you going to sulk the entire time?” Arei asked, killing the engine.
“Mom said I had to come. I came. Doesn’t mean I’m going to participate.” He got out of the car, slinging his pack over one shoulder. “I’m going to find somewhere in the shade to read.”
“Suit yourself. You have my number if you need me.” She waved her cell phone at him, then shoved it in her pocket along with her keys, and set off along the path to the registration booths.
Taryn watched her go then made his way towards a nearby stand of trees, picking a spot out of the way of anyone looking for a fight—which basically everyone was, here at the Matches—and settling down in the thick grass with his back against a tree. After a little while the noises around him faded away and he became completely involved in the latest adventures of the characters, barely noticing the movement of the sun, or the people who walked past him.
He registered approaching footsteps but didn’t really pay attention to them until the book was plucked out of his hands. Feeling his temper begin to fray, he looked up and opened his mouth ready to tell Arei to leave him the hell alone, then snapped it shut again when he saw it wasn’t Arei holding his book and looking it over with interest. By his slim antlers the stranger was a member of the Cervus clan and his face looked familiar, though Taryn pulled a blank on his actual name. He looked damp, as though he’d just had a shower, and fresh bruises marked his muscular arms.
“Taryn, right? Taryn Draconis?” He flipped through the book. “Your sister said I could find you over here.”
“I don’t fight.” Taryn held his hand out for the book. “Sorry. Go find someone else.”
The Cervus gave the book back but settled down beside him, stretching out long legs clad in dark jeans. “That’s not what I’m here for, exactly. It kind of is, but it’s part of something else.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense,” Taryn said dryly. “Spit it out so I can tell you no and you can go away.”
“You’re an asshole.” The Cervus said it conversationally and flashed a white grin. “That’s okay. I want you to teach me to read.”
Taryn looked at him blankly for a few moments, then eloquently said, “Huh?”
“Teach me to read. I can’t. I mean, I kinda can, but only really simple stuff. The words keep moving around the page.” He scratched at the base of his antlers. “And nobody really cared, ‘cause I was a champion at ten.”
The name popped into Taryn’s head at the word ‘champion’ and he made a face. “Sivan, right? Why do you care if you can read or not? It’s practically some sort of crime anyway.”
“Yeah.” Sivan thought for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. “Because I’m nearly twenty and I can barely write my own name. Champion or not, that’s kinda sad.”
“Not just kind of.”
Sivan grinned. “See, I knew you’d understand.”
Taryn studied him for a long moment and decided he wasn’t actually as airheaded as he acted. “What do I get out of it?”
“I can teach you how to fight.”
Taryn snorted. “I know how to fight. I just don’t want to.”
“Yeah, but your mom wants you to. What better way to make her happy than to beat up on a Cervus once in a while?” He reached over to tap the cover of the book. “And I really do want to learn, Taryn. I don’t want to be just a hornhead forever.”
“All right, but on a temporary basis. I find you’re screwing with me, Cervus, and everything stops.” Taryn held out his hand. “Deal?”
“Yessir.” Sivan took his hand and shook it once, then hauled him bodily to his feet. “That means you need to come fight me now.”
“The fuck I do,” Taryn snapped, yanking his hand free.
“Yes, you do,” Sivan said patiently. “Then people see you actually participate, your mom gets all pleased because her weird son is actually being normal, and nobody questions why I’m suddenly hanging around you.”
“And I’m the asshole here?” Taryn said, laughing despite himself, though it was tinged with annoyance. “Going to throw the match for me too?”
“No.” Sivan clapped him on the shoulder, steering him towards the registration tables. “You said you could fight. Prove it.”
Standing barefoot on the field ten minutes later, flexing his fingers in their wrappings, Taryn watched uncertainly as Sivan shifted his weight back and forth, waiting for the buzzer to go off. He’d last done any sort of fight like this when he was twelve, before he’d gathered the courage to refuse. For all he’d snapped at Sivan, his fighting skills were rusty and the large crowd already gathering around them was beginning to make him nervous. Sivan suddenly looked twice as big and confident, his easy smile gone and replaced with a look of concentration.
When the bells rang to start the match, Taryn just stood there for a moment, caught off-guard. A moment later, pinned flat on his stomach with Sivan’s heavy weight on his back and laughter ringing in his ears, he felt the first touch of anger. He jerked his body away as hard as he could and managed to get one knee under himself, using that as leverage to shove Sivan off him. Almost in the same motion he spun and lashed out with one leg, knocking Sivan’s legs out from under him.
He backed off instead of going for the pin, already feeling sore from the unaccustomed exertion. Rolling his shoulders, he watched Sivan get back to his feet, while the crowd yelled encouragement and insults. He glanced quickly at them to see if Arei was watching and looked back just in time for Sivan to charge and tackle him. The impact of hitting the ground with Sivan’s weight on top of him drove his teeth into the inside of his bottom lip and the bell to end the match rang before he could pull himself back together enough to get out of the pin.
“Not bad,” Sivan said, getting up and offering him a hand to pull him back to his feet. “I mean, I kicked your ass, but not bad.”
“Great.” Taryn spat blood into the dirt. “Have I made enough of a spectacle of myself?”
“Ma-aybe.” Sivan grinned, clapped him on the back, and led him off the field. “So when do you want to start lessons?”
“Come over tomorrow morning,” Taryn said after a moment’s thought. “My mom’s out all day so she won’t be up my ass.”
“That’s a nice mental image.” Sivan squeezed his shoulder, the warmth of his big hand lingering a moment. “I’ll see you tomorrow then. And, uh, I’d put some ice on that lip.” He gestured to Taryn’s face and Taryn put a hand to his mouth, where his lip was already swelling.
“Thanks,” he mumbled against his hand, watching Sivan jog away before snagging his pack and limping back to the car.
The pleased look his mother gave him when they returned home and Arei proudly told the story of how he’d fought the Cervus champion almost made up for the stinging pain in his mouth and the ache that had settled into his muscles. He went to bed early, after dinner and a hot bath, but lay awake for a while, watching the moonlight play across the ceiling of his bedroom. When he did finally sleep, he dreamed uneasily of being trapped in a circle of jeering people while Sivan stood on the other side of the circle, slowly and methodically wrapping his hands in tension wraps.
He woke the next morning to Arei pounding on the door and telling him to get some pants on because his stag friend was there. Blearily, Taryn shoved himself out of bed and pulled on the same shorts and T-shirt he’d worn the day before, wincing as his muscles protested the movement. He ran a brush quickly through his hair, squinted at his still-swollen bottom lip, and went barefoot down to the front hallway.
Sivan stood leaning against the wall, dressed casually in jeans and a tank top, his arms crossed over his chest. He was listening to Arei tell him about the matches she’d participated in the day before but looked up with a smile when Taryn approached them, raising an eyebrow and looking him up and down.
“Shut up,” Taryn said before Sivan could speak. “Get lost, Arei.”
“Somebody’s pissy today,” Arei sniffed, giving Sivan a smile. “Beat it out of him for me.”
“Will do.” Sivan gave her a lazy salute, smiling a bit as he watched her go back down the hall. “Your sister’s cute.”
“Cute as in adorable or cute as in don’t touch my little sister?”
Sivan held up both hands. “Turn off the big brother rage, she’s not my type.”
“Good. Come on, let’s get this over with.” Taryn led the way outside and over to the Mage’s Tower, nodding to the top of it. “Think you can climb up there?”
“Why, is it a test?” Sivan looked uncertainly up at the tower, watching it sway in the wind. “Revenge for getting your ass handed to you?”
“That’s where I go to read, and it’ll be easier to teach you without Arei hanging around or my mother sticking her nose in. Unless you can’t do it.”
“Watch me.” Sivan glanced down at Taryn’s bare feet then kicked off his own boots and started climbing. Taryn watched him for a few moments, admiring the way he climbed with sheer strength if not really with any skill, then followed him up.
He overtook Sivan halfway up and sat on the crumbling window sill to wait for him, dangling his feet idly out into empty air and watching the clouds go by. Sivan reached up to tweak his foot when he got close enough and nearly lost his grip doing it, saving himself with a fast grab for an outcropping. Swinging himself into the slightly steadier terrain of the tower room, Taryn leaned over the sill to offer his hands, helping pull Sivan up and into the room. They both collapsed on the floor to catch their breath, until Sivan started laughing.
“People call you a wimp, but I bet they wouldn’t climb this thing if you paid them,” he said between gasps for breath. “I think I left my heart somewhere down there on the ground.”
“I don’t care what people think.” Taryn sat up and grabbed the blankets, offering Sivan one. “Don’t see why you do.”
Sivan shrugged, wrapping the blanket around his shoulders. “So how are you going to teach me, great master?”
“Here.” Taryn passed him a stack of children’s books that he had scavenged from dusty boxes in the back of their library. “You said you could read simple things, so try reading one of those.”
Sivan looked uncertain again but took a book at random and opened it, using his finger to mark the words as he struggled to read through even those simple sentences. Taryn winced listening to him and fought to keep it off his face, waiting patiently until Sivan had managed to finish the page.
“Painful, huh?” Sivan said after a moment of silence. “The letters just... It’s like I blink and they rearrange themselves. And the longer it is, the harder it is to sound out.”
“Well, we’ll... work on it.” Taryn dug through the pile until he found the simplest book there, shifting to settle beside Sivan so they could both see the pages. Together they went over the words until Sivan started to recognize them and was able to haltingly read through the entire book by himself.
By the time they were done it was mid-afternoon, and Taryn’s stomach announced its displeasure at his missing both breakfast and lunch by growling loudly. Sivan snorted a laugh and slapped the book closed, putting it neatly back onto the pile. He pushed himself to his feet, letting the blanket slide down, and offered Taryn a hand up. Taryn hesitated slightly before taking it, not even sure why, then let Sivan’s fingers close around his and haul him to his feet.
It started to rain while they were eating sandwiches in the dining room, first a drizzle that spattered the big windows along one wall, then a sudden pouring torrent that turned the garden outside into a dreary series of green blobs. Taryn watched the rain slide down the windows, eating his sandwich mechanically, and jumped when Sivan said his name in an exasperated tone and punched his shoulder.
“What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, really.” Taryn finished the last bite of his sandwich and pushed his plate away. “Thinking about how best to teach you, I guess.”
“You looked like you were thinking about your own execution.” Sivan grinned a bit. “Want me to go home?”
“No,” Taryn said, a little surprised to find it was true. “Unless that’s your hint that you have better things to do.”
“Not today. You’re not going to make me climb that tower again in the rain, are you?”
“What, the Cervus champion isn’t up to the challenge?”
“Champions aren’t supposed to be stupid.” Sivan paused, thinking that over. “Suicidally stupid, anyway. How about I teach you some better fight moves instead?”
Taryn sighed. “Sure, I guess. I’ll show you to the training room.”
Twenty minutes later, already feeling bruised and out of breath, he regretted ever saying yes. Even with no one around them to see, Sivan still fought like he was defending his champion title, taking every advantage of Taryn’s rusty skills and barely even breaking a sweat doing it. Taryn finally lost his temper around the fourth time he landed on his back hard enough to hit his head off the mat and kicked out as hard as he could when Sivan moved to close again. His bare heel caught Sivan in the stomach, doubling him over, and he followed it up with a powerful roundhouse kick that sent Sivan to the floor.
“Uncle, uncle.” Sivan held up a hand, using the other to wipe blood from his mouth. “Ow. You’ve got a hell of a kick on you.”
“You’re too much of a wrestler. You get too close.” Taryn took his hand to pull him upright. “Sorry. I got mad.”
“At least now we match. And who’s the champion here?”
“Who’s the one who just got his ass kicked? Come on, I’ll get you some ice.” Taryn led him back down to the kitchen and dumped some ice cubes in a plastic bag, wrapping it in a dish towel before handing it over. “This is exactly what I don’t like about this whole fighting culture bullshit. What’s so great about getting hit all the time?”
“Generally the point is not to get hit,” Sivan pointed out, pressing the ice back to his mouth.
“You know what I mean. What does it accomplish? Sure, you’re a champion, you can beat people up, but you can’t read shit I was reading when I was barely out of diapers, you can’t write much more than your name. What are you going to do when you’re too old and creaky to put up a real fight, when people twenty years younger are handing you your ass and laughing behind your back, and you’re too pathetic to even—” He caught sight of Sivan’s wide-eyed, wounded expression and stopped. “Sorry. Shit. It just pisses me off.”
“I can tell.” Sivan put the ice carefully down on the counter. “I should head home. Thanks for the lesson, and lunch.”
“I really am sorry. I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”
“S’okay.” Sivan smiled a little, trying not to wince at the pull on his bloody lip. “See you tomorrow?”
Taryn stared at him for a moment then laughed. “Yeah. See you tomorrow.”
In the days that followed Sivan quickly got better at climbing the tower and slowly brought his reading skills up, until he could haltingly read through all of the books Taryn had originally brought up to the tower. After the first week Taryn started teaching him how to write more than just his name, feeling his way through the lessons mostly by instinct. When they weren’t in the tower, he found he was starting to enjoy their sparring sessions when they became more about playing than actual fighting. Sivan taught him how to wrestle effectively and how to best get out of a hold, his teaching rough but effective.
At the end of the first month Sivan dragged him out to dinner at a local pub to celebrate getting through the first four weeks together without killing each other. The waitress serving them studied Taryn’s double horns and Sivan’s antlers for a moment, one eyebrow slightly arched—she had stocky antlers of her own, marking her as a member of the caribou branch of the Cervus clan—but she said nothing and her service was impeccable. Taryn drank a little too much with his chicken and fries, stumbling and smacking his hip off the table when they got up to leave, to Sivan’s obvious amusement. He slid an arm around Taryn’s waist and they made their way back to the car leaning on each other, trying not to giggle too loud.
“You shouldn’t be driving, you drank too,” Taryn said when he’d dropped into the passenger seat.
“You be quiet. I didn’t have nearly as much as you.” Sivan slid into the driver’s seat and keyed the engine, easing the car out of the parking space. “You drunk. I’ll take you home and you can sleep it off.”
“Don’t crash.” Taryn snorted a laugh. “That’d really make my mother mad. Totally ignoble death for a Draconis, not like getting a bullet in the face or anything. Now there’s a way to go. All for the glory of the clan, never mind you leave your fucking kids behind.”
“Hush, Taryn.” Sivan said it gently. “You’re drunk.”
“Fuck off. I’d just turned three when he died, you know? Old enough to remember him, even if it was just as this big man-shape who tossed me into the air sometimes and called me ‘Little Killer’. Arei doesn’t even have that. And for what? Nothing. He died for nothing.” Taryn let his head fall against the window with a painful thump. “I hate this place. I want to run away.”
“Nah, you can’t run away.” Sivan pulled into the driveway and killed the engine. “Come on, bedtime.”
Taryn let himself be pulled out of the car, leaning on Sivan’s shoulder as they went inside. “What’re your parents like?”
“Mine? They’re okay, I guess. My mom’s pretty big on expanding the clan, but only if they’re good enough. My dad’s a former champion. They’re both...” He hesitated, then shook his head, reaching out to push open the door to Taryn’s bedroom. “Never mind. Lie down and I’ll get you some water and painkillers. Then you can’t blame your hangover on me.”
“Will anyway,” Taryn muttered, dropping gratefully down on his bed. He stretched out and closed his eyes, drifting for a few minutes until Sivan returned and made him choke down the pills and water. When Sivan got up to leave, he reached out to snag his hand. “You should stay. You drank too.” He tugged, and again more insistently when Sivan resisted, until Sivan sighed and crawled onto the bed beside him.
“Don’t kick me in your sleep,” he said, but by then Taryn had already drifted off.
He woke around midmorning, opened his eyes to bright sunlight through the window, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Groaning, he rolled over and came up against something that grunted and swatted at him, planting a hand on his side and nearly shoving him off the bed. He grabbed the bed with one hand and a handful of shirt with the other, and opened his eyes again to find Sivan giving him a sleepily grumpy look.
“Why are you still here?” Taryn asked after a moment, trying to organize his fuzzy thoughts.
“You wouldn’t let me leave.” Sivan sat up, flicking tawny hair out of his face, and untangled Taryn’s fingers from his shirt. “Feeling better? You got kinda drunk, ranted about your dad, and passed out.”
“Charming.” Taryn buried his face in his pillow.
“I’m going to go have a shower,” Sivan said, patting his shoulder. The bed creaked when he got up. “Still up for a lesson today, since I’m here?”
Taryn muttered into his pillow and heard Sivan laugh, then the sound of his footsteps leaving the room. A moment later the shower next door turned on. Taryn dozed off listening to the steady sound of the water, and woke again twenty minutes later when Sivan thumped back down on the bed, still damp but dressed. He shoved at Taryn’s shoulder until Taryn reluctantly got up and stumbled into the bathroom for his own shower, then they both went downstairs to find something to eat.
They did the lesson in a back corner of the library but Taryn found his mind wandering as Sivan worked his way through a series of word problems. He made generic noises of approval when Sivan was done and gave him a couple of books to take home, walking him to the front door. Sivan hesitated there, opening his mouth as though he was about to say something, then he just smiled and ruffled Taryn’s hair before heading out the door.
He didn’t come the next day or the one after and Taryn had just about decided he’d come to his senses when Sivan showed up around lunchtime on the third day, looking tired and sheepish. He shrugged when Taryn asked him if everything was okay and apologized for not bringing back the books, claiming that he’d forgotten them. They took the climb up to the tower in silence and sat side by side under the blankets to go through a new book, one of slightly higher level, that Taryn had dug out of storage the night before. Sivan read without enthusiasm, stumbling over words he’d mastered two weeks earlier, and put the book down after he’d completed a page.
“Seriously, what’s wrong?” Taryn asked after a few moments of awkward silence. “You were doing really well.”
“I... had a fight with my parents.” Sivan studied the scraped rock of the wall opposite them. “They want me to do something and I don’t think I want to do it anymore. I don’t think it’s... right.”
“So you told them no?”
“Yeah. But you know how parents are. They don’t really listen to you when you say no.” Sivan picked up the book again. “Anyway, sorry. I’ll try to pay more attention.”
“We can take a break if you want. Go for a walk or something.” Taryn tried a smile. “I’ll even willingly let you beat me up.”
Sivan laughed, though the corners of his mouth twisted down a little as though it were painful. “Nah. This is fine. Kinda nice.”
“If you say so.” Taryn settled back, letting his shoulder lean against Sivan’s. “Start from the top, I guess.”
Another week passed by, slowly on the couple of days that Sivan didn’t come. Even Arei commented on it, telling him to stop sulking around about his stag boyfriend not showing up, giving him the slightly snotty pitying look she was so good at. He made an obscene gesture at her and went to the tower to read, refusing to come down until after dark. He was up there again the next day when Sivan arrived, hauling himself in through the window and collapsing on the floor. A heavy bruise marked the angle of his jaw but he waved it off when Taryn asked about it, dragging himself dramatically to Taryn’s side and stealing the blanket from him.
They read in silence broken only occasionally by Sivan asking for help with a difficult word, leaning their heads together as Taryn walked him through it. Sivan seemed much more cheerful today and his attitude eventually communicated itself to Taryn, who gradually relaxed and let himself lean on Sivan’s shoulder. Sivan snapping his book shut and announcing that he was done startled him out of the world of his own book and he jumped, giving Sivan a wide-eyed look.
Sivan leaned in and kissed him gently, a hesitant brush against his mouth. Before he could move back all the way, his expression uncertain, Taryn grabbed him by the front of his shirt and yanked him forward again. Their teeth clicked together and Sivan laughed even as he cupped Taryn’s face in both hands, softening the kiss and running his tongue along Taryn’s bottom lip.
“Uh,” Taryn managed when they broke apart a few minutes later. “I think you need to do that again. A lot.”
Sivan snorted so hard he had to turn away, his shoulders shaking with laughter. Taryn took a moment to admire the curve of his back—now that he was allowed to, like the kiss had been permission to finally acknowledge why he felt so out of sorts whenever Sivan wasn’t around—and pushed their messy pile of books out of the way. He reached out to turn Sivan back around and kissed along his neck and jaw until he stopped laughing and started trying to catch his breath, his hands sliding under Taryn’s shirt.
“As often as you want,” he said when he eventually pulled away again, leaning his forehead against Taryn’s. His hand stole up and he brushed his knuckles along the line of Taryn’s cheekbone. “To be honest, I thought you’d just kick me out. Might be...” He hesitated and suddenly hugged Taryn tight, hiding his face against the curve of Taryn’s neck.
“Might be what? Worried about your family? My family? Shit, like I care what anyone thinks. Even if you are a stag.” Taryn freed a hand to run his fingers up the velvety length of Sivan’s antlers.
“I know you don’t.” Sivan looked up again and his smile had the same slight painful twist as it had earlier, but before Taryn could comment—or demand a real answer—all his thoughts jittered away under the sensation of Sivan’s mouth on his.
It was dark by the time Sivan left, after reluctantly saying no to Taryn’s offer to stay the night again. Taryn walked him out to his car and stole a quick kiss, watching and waving until the car’s headlights winked out around a corner of the road. He ran into Arei on the way back inside and she did a double-take before pointing an accusing finger at him.
“You’ve got this total sappy look on your face,” she said, arching a dark eyebrow. “I hope you at least used protection.”
“Shut the hell up, Arei.” Taryn walked past her without stopping.
“It’s okay,” she yelled after him. “I still support you, even if your taste sucks.”
Rolling his eyes but laughing a bit despite himself, Taryn went into his room and shut the door behind him. For a little while he just lay on his bed with his arms behind his head, looking up at his ceiling and completely unaware of the goofy smile on his face, before a knock on the door pulled him out of his reverie. He told Arei to get lost but instead it was his mother’s voice that answered him, asking if she could come in.
“Uh, sure.” He sat up as the door opened, crossing his legs under him. “Everything okay?”
“Mm-hmm.” She sat on the edge of the bed, tucking her dark curls out of her face. “How about you? I’ve noticed you looking happier lately. I’m glad you’ve found a friend, Taryn, but the Cervus boy...” She made a ‘tsk’ noise. “Be careful who you trust. They are a large clan, with a long memory. And we have had much bad blood between us.”
Taryn stopped himself from pointing out that she’d been the one to cause the bad blood and instead mustered up a smile. “I’ll be careful. Though I really don’t think you have anything to worry about with Sivan.”
“If you say so.” She patted his knee, a little awkwardly. “I am glad to see you smiling more. And that you are improving your skills instead of wasting away in that tower with your books. Sleep well.”
“You too,” he said, watching her leave and shut the door gently behind her. After a moment he stripped off his clothes and crawled under the blankets, snuggling up to his pillow and quickly falling asleep.
He waited until evening the next day for Sivan to come, trying not to fidget as the hours passed and the driveway remained empty. Another day passed without sight of him, and another, and when he did finally show up a full week had passed. Taryn took one look at his bruised face and dragged him past Arei—sprawled in the living room to watch TV, though she seemed more interested in watching them—and up the stairs to his bedroom. He shoved Sivan at the bed and shut the door behind him, locking it with a twist of his wrist before turning around again.
“Thought the point of being a champion is not to get hit?” he asked, aware his voice was trembling with anger and not even sure why.
“Even champions have people better than them. Hell, you’ve given me a bloody lip before too.” He held out his arms then dropped them when Taryn ignored the gesture.
“This isn’t a bloody lip. You throw a match or what?” Taryn came over and touched the bruise stretched out along Sivan’s cheek, already greening along the edges.
“Some people you don’t fight.” Sivan caught his hand and pressed a kiss to his palm. “Are we reading today or want to just skip straight to the action?” He bounced a few times on the bed and pulled a face at the way it creaked under his weight. “Maybe not up here, that wouldn’t be subtle at all.”
“I said no.” He caught Taryn’s gaze and held it, eyes nearly black, his expression flatter than Taryn had ever seen it. “There are some things, little dragon, that you do not need to know.”
“Don’t call me that,” Taryn said after a heartbeat of silence.
Sivan’s grin flashed and suddenly he looked as cheerful as ever. “Can I call you cupcake? Sunshine? How about teddy bear?” He tugged Taryn onto his lap, sliding his fingers down past the waistband of Taryn’s jeans, and murmured in his ear, “Or Taryn, just Taryn, mine and no one else’s?” He bit down on the lobe of Taryn’s ear, hard enough to hurt and hard enough to distract Taryn from all his questions; and in the end the bed didn’t creak that loudly after all.
Taryn woke at midnight to the sound of rain and an empty bed beside him. He stretched out and closed his eyes again, thinking that Sivan had only gone to the bathroom, but as the minutes ticked by and nothing moved, he became more and more awake. He sat up and glanced at the window, then ran a hand across the sheet beside him, feeling its coolness. Outside the rain fell harder, drumming on the roof and smearing the window until even the lights out in the courtyard looked dim and blurry. Silently he got up and pulled on a pair of shorts, feeling the hairs rise on the back of his neck.
He went to Arei’s room first, to wake her and to tell her to go wake their mother. She took one look at his face and went without protest, leaving him to make his way downstairs, his bare feet light as a cat’s on the carpet. There was no sign of Sivan anywhere on the downstairs level but when Taryn put a hand on the front door, he found it was unlocked. He gently eased it open and stepped out onto the porch, glancing at the Mage’s Tower, just barely visible in the rain. The stone walls branching out from it were little more than hulking black shadows in the night, but he could see a hint of light by the front gate.
He stepped out into the rain, shivering a little at its cold wetness, and followed the wall around towards the gate until he saw Sivan, damp but standing under the overhang that sheltered the gate, his hand resting on the lever to open it. He was talking to someone and shaking his head, the words lost under the driving rain, but Taryn didn’t need to hear him to know he’d been betrayed. He felt coldness steal through his chest, turning his heart into a heavy lump, and met Sivan’s eyes when Sivan looked up suddenly.
“Shit.” Sivan gave him a heavy, helpless look, and reached out for him. “Taryn...”
Taryn spun on his heel and bolted for the Mage’s Tower, running flat-out despite the rain. Behind him he heard the splashing of Sivan’s footsteps in pursuit, and a hand wrapped around his ankle even as he started climbing up the slick stones. He kicked out as hard as he could—his kick had always been his biggest strength—and Sivan flinched back, releasing him. A second later, however, he started climbing right behind Taryn, scrabbling for grip on the wet walls.
Gasping for breath, Taryn scrambled up the side of the tower, nearly losing his footing more than once and once only barely saving himself with one hand when his feet slid out from under him. The tower rocked and swayed in the wind and under the force of the rain, bits of rotten stone coming loose and falling to smash in the courtyard down below. He risked looking down twice and both times saw Sivan still coming after him, face set in a grimace of concentration.
Taryn reached the window sill first and flung himself inside, rolling over and getting to his feet all in one smooth motion, casting about for a weapon. His hand fell on a chunk of rock and he grabbed it, brandishing it when Sivan pulled himself into the room. Both of them were breathing hard, rain-soaked and trembling.
“You don’t understand,” Sivan managed, holding out both hands to show his palms were empty.
“Is there more to understand?” Taryn snarled. “Were you sleepwalking when you opened the front door and went to unlock the front gate?”
“They made me!” Sivan yelled it so suddenly that Taryn flinched, nearly dropping the rock in his hand. “I didn’t... After I met you, I didn’t want to. I told them that but they didn’t care!” He took a deep, gasping breath. “I tried to walk away but I couldn’t. You know what that’s like, Taryn.”
“When I said no, I held to it. And I never would have betrayed you like this. Ever. I’d have died first.” Taryn sagged a little, exhausted, but straightened up when Sivan took a few steps towards him. “Back off.”
“I was telling them no, okay?” Sivan took another step forward. “Put the rock down. Let me explain without threatening to brain me.”
“You’d need to actually have a brain for that.” It was a low, immature shot, but Taryn still saw Sivan’s mouth tighten. “Can’t believe I fell for your bullshit. Nobody cares about anything but fighting and killing each other around here.”
“I cared and I do care. You want to know why I disappeared for a week? My dad, my father, beat the shit out of me because I told him I didn’t want to be his rat anymore. Because I told him I wasn’t going to hurt you. Put the rock down, Taryn.” He reached out for it, grabbed it and yanked it out of Taryn’s hand; and Taryn kicked him in the knee, hard enough to collapse his leg under him.
He didn’t wait for Sivan to get up, just lunged for the opposite end of the room with the half-formed idea of escaping back down the side of the tower. Sivan twisted on the knee that Taryn had kicked and snagged the edge of his shorts, yanking him back and down. Taryn fought to stay on his feet, knowing that once he went down Sivan would be able to easily overpower him, and yanked back so hard his shorts started to tear. They struggled against each other while the tower wobbled beneath their feet and the rain gusted in through the holes, turning the floor into a slippery mess.
He felt open air at his back and shoved forward suddenly, overwhelmed by the sudden animal instinct to get away from the edge of the tower. Sivan slipped and lost his grip, stumbling into one wall. The crack of rock giving way was loud even over the sound of the rain and an entire section of the wall slid down, hung for a moment, then fell away to the courtyard below. Sivan pinwheeled his arms in a desperate attempt to regain his balance, his eyes wide, and started to fall.
Taryn moved without thinking, lunging across the intervening space and grabbing Sivan’s shirt with one hand. The sudden weight nearly yanked him right out after Sivan and he only barely managed to brace himself against what was left of the wall, scrambling to grab Sivan’s wrist before the shirt tore. Sivan’s skin was rain-slick and slippery under his fingers and he could feel himself losing both his grip and his balance against the drive of the wind.
“Let go!” Sivan twisted, trying to break Taryn’s grip.
“The fuck I will, you asshole.” Taryn struggled to get his feet back under him and pull Sivan up, nearly sobbing with the exertion. “Stop fighting me!”
Sivan stilled, looking up with hopeless eyes, and beneath Taryn’s feet the floor sagged. He stumbled forward, his shoulder coming loose of the wall he was bracing against, and Sivan’s weight dragged him out into the air. As they fell Sivan wrapped both arms around him and Taryn gave a sobbing laugh when he realized Sivan was trying to protect him from the worst of the impact. Squeezing his eyes shut, he wondered if it would hurt or if it would just be an instant blackness.
They hit the ground with a hard, jarring, but not life-threatening thud. Taryn lay where he was for a moment, sprawled across Sivan’s chest and breathing in dusty dry air, then gingerly opened his eyes to look around. They lay on a stone floor marked with the last flecks of some sort of paint and drifted over with sand. Around them thick stone walls rose up so high overhead that their meeting was lost in the shadows. The air smelled of age and dust, and Taryn’s first thought was that they’d somehow landed in a crypt.
Sivan stirred and groaned beneath him, putting a hand to his head. He sat up shakily when Taryn pulled back and for a moment they just stared at each other before Taryn shoved himself to his feet, backing away and crossing his arms over his bare chest.
“I don’t know where we are and I don’t really care,” he said. “I’m going back to my family. I suggest you do the same and you find somewhere else to be, because if I see you again, Sivan, I will kill you. I promise you.”
He turned on his heel and walked down the long hallway without waiting for a response, and didn’t turn back even when Sivan called his name.