Alex walked down the narrow, winding streets of Aleppo, the soft slap of his boots on the hard ground the only sound he heard over the pounding in his ears. He wore the simple, anonymous colors of an ordinary soldier. Unarmored, though his sword was still belted at his side.
He ached, but barely, the nagging discomfort of a cilice against his skin and the drag of old wounds just a background.
The unclaimed earth was thirsty and dusty here, in this summer landscape, but the gardens were still fed behind their courtyards. The crops were green in the fields.
There was one door in particular that he sought out. It was unmarked, but he knew the way, even in the dimming light of the evening as people returned to their homes and shut their gates against the world.
He knocked on the front gate of this particular home, just once, before a smiling young man opened it. "Come," the man said, ushering him behind the heavy, reinforced wood. "The master is waiting for you, Brother Manes."
Alex nodded and followed. He left his boots in the courtyard and began to wash the dust off his feet in the bowl of water he was offered, brushing aside the servant who would have done it for him.
He didn't finish. A man strode into the small chamber. He was tall and rangy, golden eyed, with a mop of curls, dressed in fine linen. There were paintings made of the good Lord which he could have been the model for, oh blasphemous thought.
"Alex," Michael Guerin said, with a real smile brightening his face, reaching all the way to his eyes. "You came."
It was irresistible, the way that smile pulled at him. A kind of sacrilege indeed. "Master Guerin, you have invited me," Alex said more primly than he meant to.
Guerin's smile softened, unbothered. "And it's pleased me that you've come. Here. Let me."
And Guerin was on his knees, an easy slide of his body, play of muscle under his clothes. He pulled the cloth and bowl of water from Alex's hand.
Alex moved to protest but Guerin just shook his head. "Remember our agreement. You are my guest. It's mine to do."
Alex swallowed and went still. Their agreement, the promise he made to this man, in a quiet hall in the castle at Acre when the winter rains petered out.
"Give me two weeks, Alex. Two weeks to show you," Guerin had whispered to him, eyes soft and bright. His hands had been behind his back, fisted and held tight, so he couldn't do what he wanted to-- couldn't reach out.
And Alex had closed his eyes, shook his head and whispered back, "you've already had my vows from me. I'm already damned for that." He swallowed, remembering that night in the fields, hurried and sweet, lit by the moon. Making a mockery of his oath to God and the chastity and integrity of already polluted flesh. Because he'd wanted it, he'd always wanted it.
And Guerin was shaking his head, denying something. "I don't want to take anything from you. I would have you willing, Alex."
Alex snorted. "Right, you just want time. Two weeks to damn me irretrievably. Two weeks to forever in hellfire."
Guerin's Greek was careful, precise and he murmured, "but wasn't it god who said, 'you are beautiful, my love, awesome as an army with banners'. How is that hellfire?"
Alex flinched. "Don't mock me. I know you don't follow the true god."
And Guerin had smiled, still not touching him, still so close. Close enough to feel the damning heat of his body radiating out, drawing Alex in. "God is one, and you are his creation, Sir Manes. Do you truly believe he made you imperfectly?"
"Guerin," Alex growled. "God creates, the devil corrupts. And it is my corruption that-- desires what is forbidden."
"Please. Give me two weeks. Two weeks to prove you wrong," said Alex's personal devil. As beautiful and terrible as an army with banners.
Alex closed his eyes. Two weeks. Maybe that would purge the poison from him. Nothing else had, not for all his father's good work, not for all the mortification of the flesh. He still burned.
The heat of a man's smooth muscled skin still drew his eyes, his mind, his cock, all traitors.
"Where?" He whispered then and when he opened his eyes, Michael Guerin's were shining, soft like honey in the fields. And how, how could he be a devil when he was so beautiful? A devil seducing with honey, clean skin and hard muscle.
"Come to me in Aleppo, in the summer, before the campaign season," Guerin said. And Alex, helpless, nodded. "Two weeks. Let me--let me. And if at the end you're not won over, so be it."
And here he was.
With Guerin, bare-headed and soft, kneeling in front of him, washing his feet with a soft cloth, warm water and a methodical gentleness. It was the gentleness that rocked him back, always. Like no one had told him that what men did together was only for hidden places, rough and stolen.
Alex offered his hands after, unsteady but strong, pulling Guerin to his feet.
"Come inside," Guerin told him. And Alex followed, through the warm, green inner courtyard that smelled of flowers, into the house.
It was neat and well kept, the house, the tiles of the floor pleasantly cool under Alex's bare feet. There were servants, Alex knew, retainers, not just the man at the door, but they had slipped away, as if it were only them there now.
"Where are we going?" Alex asked, as if he didn't know. To the bedchamber, to Michael Guerin's bed? He'd promised himself that much when he’d agreed to come here, and he ached to know that fire again.
But Guerin's smile was gentle when he looked over his shoulder, back at Alex. "I thought you'd like a bath and something clean to wear."
Alex smiled back then. "Ah," he said. "Franks are filthy, are they? You were dirty enough yourself in Acre."
There was a short laugh. "We're all filthy sometimes. But Latin Franks are filthy even when there's plenty of hot water and willing maidens to scrub them clean."
"You may call me a Frank, but my mother was more saracen than yours by the look of you," Alex said, sharply.
Guerin rolled his eyes, an amused curl to his lips. "Mine was a Circassian slave girl to the best of my knowledge, not that we've met since she dropped me. But you, Alexander, have that Latin poison in your heart despite your dam, and I mean to root it out."
Alex shook his head. "You won't root anything out of me with any maiden, however willing. It's been tried."
"Oh, I'm not maid enough for you?" Guerin laughed. His eyes were bright, clearly taking joy in the verbal sparring. "I admit, my maidenhead is long gone, but I expect that means I can give you more pleasure, not less. Experience has its own virtue."
"So you intend to bathe me, do you?" Alex found himself leaning forward. Guerin's warmth was so close.
"I intend to give you pleasure, Alex, until you know it's not a sin." The sincerity in his voice stopped Alex where he stood, the words in him going quiet.
He bit his lip and stared, arrested. When Guerin took his hand, he followed.
The bath was huge and tiled in the old Roman style and steam wafted up in a way that made Alex's brows rise. If servants had brought enough hot water up to fill this it would have long cooled. "How is it heated?" He wondered.
For a moment Guerin's eyes looked younger, excited in a boyish way. They gleamed while he spoke. "It's piped in hot, from under the floor. There's a brazier running, in the old Roman way. I've actually improved the design so it doesn't get too hot with a cooling spring and by-- but you don't really want to talk about this."
Alex was smiling genuinely back, charmed. "I don't mind," he offered.
But Guerin shook his head, soft curls falling over his eyes and his smile was rueful. "There will be time to ramble later."
"I honestly don't mind," Alex repeated. "I like listening to you talk."
Guerin's eyes were dark in the lamp light. "Then we'll have time for that." He took an easy step forward. "But for now, let me be your bath attendant, Sir Manes."
Alex shivered where he stood, the brief light mood passing under the warmth of those eyes. Honey and molasses. "It's Brother Manes," he said, as if it mattered. "I'm a Knight of the Temple."
"And a monk of the church militant," Guerin responded easily, taking another step closer. "I know how to address you. But Alex is better?"
"It doesn't matter, I've already broken my vows for you, Master Guerin." Chastity first, hard fought for, then given away without even a struggle while battle fever hummed in his veins and this man looked him over and smiled his brilliant smile.
His obedience, when he'd come here, agreed to put it into Guerin's strong hands instead of the church and god, where it belonged.
Poverty… well, there was nothing poor about this place.
Guerin nodded, now. And with a careful, gentling touch he leaned forward and pressed his lips against Alex's. Warm and soft, a hint of stubble.
It was nothing like the kisses they'd shared in Acre. Those were a thing made half of violence, rough and bruising. It had stung after, and Alex had let the bite of it burn him to the core. This-- this was a glance of silk and sweet wine, the tantalizing hint of tongue, strength yes, but beneath the softness.
That mouth, the press of his forehead, the gentle urging of his tongue, parting Alex's lips.
Guerin smiled, breath coming fast and murmured, "as the poet said, how much time did your creation take, o angel?"
And Alex laughed, helpless and surprised, hands still caught in the linen of Guerin's shirt, sinfully pleasant on skin. Guerin's hands were on his cloak, unfastening it carefully, letting it spill down on the floor in a puddle.
Next came Alex's shirt, the laces of it unwound with long, steady fingers. Guerin's face was a mask of concentration, lips still parted and pink, tongue visible against them.
He paused at the cilice underneath, eyes wide when his fingers brushed over the rough cloth, woven with twigs and wires to cause a constant discomfort. Alex shrugged, minutely, a rueful smile of his own.
"Sackcloth, honestly?" Guerin said, "You really are a monk."
"It mortifies the flesh. Distracts from the unholy, reminds me that this world, this body is not my home," Alex replied as if that had done him any good in the end. He'd always been unclean.
Guerin's eyes squeezed shut. "My body can be your home if you want," he spilled out.
"Did a poet say that?" Alex asked. Guerin just shook his head.
When he was urged, Alex lifted his arms and let Guerin strip him of the rough cloth. Let him toss it aside with much more force than he had the cloak and shirt. His hands then, where splayed on Alex's bare chest.
Warm and careful, gentle still, fingers brushing over raw, reddened skin. Stopping over bruises and marks. Old scars, battlefield injuries, training wounds. Lash marks and old burns, those were what stopped Guerin for a moment.
"Who flogged you? Or did you do it yourself to mortify the flesh?" came the whisper.
"My father showed me how it was done before I was strong enough for it," Alex admitted easily. "He knew what I was before I did and tried to rid me of the affliction. It doesn’t really help."
Guerin drew in a sharp breath. "There's no cure for what God made us, Alex. You can't flog love from a human soul."
"The church would disagree. Maybe you just haven't tried hard enough," Alex said and he half laughed. Guerin kissed him again stopping the laughter on his lips before it could sharpen.
It was just as gentle, careful of him, as the first time, that kiss.
Guerin undid his belt and stripped him of his trousers while he was still shivering from the taste, from the devouring warmth that gentle touches could bring.
He took the few steps over to the steaming bath and let Guerin ease him into the water with an arm around his shoulder. The heat of it was a shock, especially in the still summer air, but it was moments before it eased into his bones.
"Oh," he murmured, eyes wide, as he sank deep.
Guerin grinned at him, whatever shadows he was haunted by himself chased away by the look in Alex's eyes. "Feels nice, doesn't it? Better with me as your bath maiden, let me tell you."
Alex had no idea what he meant by that, until Guerin pulled out a cloth that smelled of something sweet and started to rub it against his skin.
He didn't know how long he sat there, while the water stayed bone meltingly warm and careful hands scrubbed the dirt and sweat and dust from him until his skin felt new and his hair lay soft and plastered against his skull.
He was boneless and warm, almost limp with it when Guerin helped him out of the bath and guided him over to a padded bench with a skin warm cloth on it.
He let Guerin rub sweet smelling oils onto his back, careful, clever hands massaging muscle and skin. From heel to neck until he was loose and open, a thing rung dry.
Not entirely limp, though, when he was urged to turn over onto his back. A kiss pressed to his lips.
He sighed against Guerin's smiling mouth while a warm hand covered his cock. "A real bath attendant would never leave you wanting," murmured in his ear. "Is this how you touch yourself?"
He was already so hard, the rest of him like liquid poured out of its container. The pull on his cock was slow and easy, just enough pressure to make his hips move. Then harder, but still careful of him, a gift.
He didn’t tell Guerin that he couldn't do this when he was alone, that it was still a sin, that only desperation ever made him put hands on himself.
He didn't say it's never like this when it's just him, languorous and easy, a warm calloused palm and clever fingers on his balls. Alex was rough with his own body when it betrayed him, drove him mad with the physical need that forced him to spill his seed. Another punishment.
But here, in this place, under these hands, his back arched and his eyes closed, and he was a creature of warm and willing flesh, played like an instrument in skilled hands. He spilled quickly, hot bursts of it, over Guerin's hands and his own belly.
His eyes blinked closed and warm at the release, only to snap open again at the warm wet feel of Guerin's tongue on his skin, chasing after the spunk, licking and tasting.
Guerin face was a mix of satisfaction and determination, like there was no part of Alex he didn't intend to claim. And all Alex felt in the moment was wonder and relief. And the vague disappointment that Guerin was still covered from wrist to knee, only a tantalizing hint of bare skin around his neck.
He didn't see Guerin bare until the morning, when he woke up in a comfortable bed and not on the bench he remembered last. He should be startled, worried, waking up in this unfamiliar place, but some part of him knew. Nothing else had ever been like this. He was in Guerin's home.
He had the bedclothes tucked around him and Guerin's broad back pressed close. The man was clearly asleep still, though the sun was coming in through the curtains and brightening the room.
He had a shirt on, more impossibly soft fabric. And all Alex wanted, suddenly desperately, was to feel the warm skin underneath.
He didn't hesitate to slide his fingers under cloth. Guerin made a noise of sleepy compliance and yawned heavily.
"You're here." Alex thought he heard, but paid it no attention.
He had another task, as he pulled the hem up and off, tossing the shirt aside. Rewarded by sleep warmed skin, soft sprinkle of hair and a shifting body next to his in the open sun.
Guerin smiled at him, all sunlight and slitted eyes. Shifted to accept a kiss, to let Alex touch everything he could reach.
The brush of scar tissue under his palms was what startled Alex, nothing Guerin did or said.
"You never said you'd been flogged also," Alex said not knowing why it surprised him to feel the marks of it, still rough and raised, twisted scars.
Guerin shrugged, more awake and almost rueful about it, like it hardly mattered. That expression twisted something in Alex's stomach. "I didn't inflict a lash on myself if that’s what you’re asking."
He hardly knew anything about the man whose bed he lay in. "So who did?" he asked softly. It happened in armies. But these marks seemed old, old, like they'd grown with a body that wasn't fully formed yet. Alex had scars like that.
"It's too early for this. I want to piss and drink some coffee, and make you spill before we talk about anything like that," Guerin muttered. "No particular order."
And so Alex allowed himself to be pushed down and kissed, sharp hips pressed against his, the hard, hot length of another cock rubbing against his own. There was still that gentleness to Guerin's passion, the shift of his hips and the tight grip of his hands.
It didn't take long, thrusting and gasping, Alex's body seemed ready to make up for years. To be known, touched.
It was only after, with Guerin’s face still buried in his neck, breath hot on his skin that he asked again. Even if he shouldn't, if Guerin’s wish seemed to be to not regard it. "I want to know who you are," he said, flushing a little. “Could you tell me?”
Guerin pushed up on his arms so they were face to face and gave him another considering look and then finally a sigh.
"I told you. I was whelped by a slave girl. Before they figured out I was good for war, they didn't entirely know what to do with me. I was always trouble." His lips quirked a little.
Alex's breath caught. "You- but--"
Guerin rolled off him totally, over onto his side, so that they were still looking at each other, but from a length away. "Yeah. Whoever knew I'd be in a position to get my hands on a Knight Templar in any way but on my back in a brothel?"
"Did. Did that?" he hardly knew what he was asking.
"Nah. I told you, I was made for war. I got to keep my balls and earn a sword and freedom. And then this house and, my. Well, now-- you," Guerin smirked. Reached out and lay his hands on Alex's bare chest. "And you see, that's what I call lucky. Favored of God even."
Alex nodded dumbly, not knowing what to say. The touch of Guerin's fingers felt good, but his mind was racing.
There was another pause, while Guerin just looked at him steadily, like he was waiting for Alex to say something. "Is it? Is it that you like the idea?" Guerin asked when Alex was quiet, something strange behind his eyes, caught in the teeth of his smile, something that felt wrong.
Alex blinked, confused, pulled from his thoughts. "What?"
"Some men do. Like a game. Playing at the brothel. Being… unable to refuse?" Guerin took a breath. “In play, of course. Or sometimes not.”
Alex shook his head again, still not understanding. "I don't… I just want you willing? Honorably?" he tried, as if there could be honor in this.
He didn't have long to wonder if that was the right thing to say. The something that was strange-- wrong-- vanished from behind Guerin's eyes between blinks, fading back to brightness.
Alex opened his mouth to say something else but Guerin was too fast, kissing him then with a brilliant ardor. Hands framing his face. Alex's cock twitched, as if it hadn't just now been satisfied. It almost hurt, but it was a pleasant, raw sort of ache.
"Me too," Guerin whispered, ardently, into his mouth. “Honorably.” The just kissed for a while, hard and raw and endless burn, until the feeling became unbearable and they had to part.
Guerin fed him, or the mysterious, barely seen servants did, but there was food. Not too rich or strange. Warm flavors and fresh fruit from the orchards, heavy and ripe. Strong coffee, smelling of fire.
“Is it good?” Guerin asked. “I don’t know what you like to eat.”
Alex laughed at him, “I’m half monk and half soldier. You could feed me on dry meal and broth and I’d be happy.”
Guerin rolled his eyes, visibly offended by the very idea. "I wouldn't feed a dog on that," he muttered. “Never mind my guest.”
Alex couldn’t help but smile. “I didn’t know you’d brought me here to feed me.”
His eyes went wider when Guerin’s eyebrows lifted and he slid down next to him again, on his knees, grinning. Between his legs. “Well, maybe the good food will sweeten your taste when I feed myself?”
Alex had heard about this being done, whispered about, in books of old latin poetry, hidden by snickering boys while the masters weren’t looking. He didn’t know, he didn’t know it was an art that was still known, not just by the decadent romans who god had cursed.
Fellator, the books sneered. But there was nothing to sneer about when he stared at Guerin’s red, red mouth, the curl of his tongue. The weight of his gaze when he knelt down in front of Alex and reached for his trousers, heavy, from under those golden lashes.
“You-- you can’t mean to--” Alex whispered, reaching out, as if to offer a kiss. But Guerin just took the hand that reached for him, wove his fingers through Alex’s for a moment, and then pressed Alex’s hands into his hair.
His hair, the soft curl of it, the way it felt under Alex’s hands, rough silk and tangles.
It all faded in the wake of a hot, wet tongue licking a stripe over the length of his cock before those lips parted and sucked him. And holy god on his cross, this wasn’t, it wasn’t, but Guerin’s mouth was so warm, his lips, the suction, the feel on the head of his cock, warm and wet. He hadn’t even imagined that this was--
He tugged, he must have tugged at the curls in his hands and Guerin just seemed to know how, how to open up his throat, he could see the line of his cock, the way that--
Someone moaned, desperate, chanting something, a holy prayer, a keen of desire, the way Guerin’s body shone in the sunny courtyard, strong and perfect.
He was going to die here, with his cock in Michael Guerin’s mouth, there was no way he could survive this.
Maybe burning in hell would be worth it. It felt like it was.
Guerin loved books, something he wouldn’t have known about him in Acre, where he seemed to mostly like swords and wine and staring at Alex’s mouth.
In this house, there was a shelf of them, valuable and carefully kept. Sheaths of writing paper and good ink on a carved desk. The paper was laid out to dry, covered with words and drawings and designs, which Guerin spoke of easily if pressed even a little.
This was for a machine that would carry water up a hill. This for irrigation. This for an engine that would push through mortar. This for a modification to a saddle to make it easier for an archer. He had names on his tongue, Plato and Aristotle and the shape of worlds and bodies. Al-Battani and the movement of the stars, Al-Zarquali and the astrolabe and the apogee of the sun.
“And isn’t it wonderful,” he said, with so much joy, “that this is our world and we are free in it?”
And then Alex, not knowing what else to say, kissed him hard and pressed him down on his own writing desk, coming up between his wide spread knees. He didn’t know how to use his mouth like Guerin did, but his enthusiasm carried him and he laughed, wild eyed, when Guerin cursed him out half heartedly for getting spunk where it didn’t belong.
And Guerin laughed too then, eyes shining like stars.
"Why do you think God cursed us?" Alex asked on the second week, when time was growing shorter. "To desire men?"
Guerin took a long drink from his cup of unwatered wine. "I don't think he did," he said. "How could someone as beautiful as you be cursed?"
Alex shook his head. "I'm not," he muttered. "I don't know why you say that. I'm-- strength is what men need, not beauty."
"Well you have strength as well, which is its own pleasure," Guerin said, frankly, gaze sliding up and down Alex’s body like he owned it. "And soft dark hair, the color of the night of a new moon. Eyes like ebony. And fine clear skin, sharp features, a waist like a sapling, a nice shaped cock and an ass like a-- hey!" Guerin laughed and ducked when Alex threw his own glass at him. "Don't break that, it's expensive!"
“You know that one of my vows was poverty,” Alex laughed right back. “It’s godly to smash the trappings of the world.”
“I’ll show you godly.” Guerin’s eyes were bright again. He caught Alex’s wrist in his grasp, but instead of pushing it down, he raised it to his lips and kissed there.
Alex stared at him again, the laughter fading. “I don’t know how to reconcile you to everything I know,” he whispered. “I don’t know how to do undo everything I am.”
“That’s not what I’m asking,” Guerin said, soft and certain, still holding Alex’s wrist in the loose, easily broken circle of his fingers. “I only want you to be what god made you. And that’s something divine, Alex.”
“No. No," Alex gave a swallowing gasp. "When my father recognized my affliction he promised to scourge it out of me. Giving me to the church was supposed to save me, but even that failed. Have you honestly never felt like that?” Alex asked, eyes still fixed on Guerin’s face. “Have you never wanted to be free of it?”
Guerin swallowed, his throat working. “I’ve wanted desperately to be free, until I thought I’d die of it,” he whispered in return, like it was just them in the world. “But not free of that, no. There’s so much darkness in this world, I think it’s that which god hates and the devil loves. Not-- not light.”
“But aren’t I darkness?” Alex asked, eyebrows arching. “Unchaste and unclean?”
Guerin shook his head, curls shifting, lashes moving. “I don’t know how to answer you. Is that what you think I am? The devil to tempt you from your purity? You’d have died chaste on the battlefield, wouldn’t you have?”
And that, that thought. “No,” Alex said, quickly, certain. “Not you. I know you’re good. I saw it the moment that I saw you.”
There was surprise in those soft honey eyes that rocked Alex back. Had Guerin really thought that Alex considered him a devil and come to him anyway? He shook his head, ready to say more, but Guerin was already speaking, “well, how am I better than you? I am unchaste, worldly, I love sex and wine and filthy greek poetry. Aren’t I the monster you want to destroy in yourself?”
“No!” Alex said, fiercer. “That’s not true. You-- you’re good. You are.”
“Well, so are you? Aren’t you better than me, sweetheart?”
"Sweetheart? Really, Guerin?"
"Don't distract. You are very sweet, Brother Manes. Too bad the Templars wear armor, rather than a habit. I've never stripped anyone of a habit before and I--" Guerin laughed and didn't even try to duck again when Alex shoved him down and climbed on top.
"I'll show you sweet," he muttered darkly. Guerin's lashes fluttered gold and he smiled.
On the fourteenth day, he fucked into Michael Guerin for the first time on a bed with the curtains drawn. He was smiling like a fool, oil dripping from his fingers, well muscled thighs spread over his. Guerin’s eyes were all pupil, dark and wondering, his lip bitten and his body open and hot.
“How long has it been?” Alex said and groaned then, as he pushed himself inside all that endless flesh and heat. “Since anyone…”
“Idiot,” Guerin hissed. “I chose you. You’re the only one who matters.” And grabbed Alex by the hips and pulled.
Alex forgot to ask why, why he would ever have made a choice like that. His own choices felt made and well made.
The thing was, that at Acre in the winter rains, Alex had meant to die in battle. And Guerin was the one who’d known it. It was only that he was tired-- tired of burning, tired of fighting, tired of driving down the flesh in favor of the spirit.
It was only that his father had ridden through and said--
And it was true that nothing had changed, that he was still--
It was only that taking up arms against yourself and destroying your own body was a sin, but falling in battle in the holy land was the way to paradise. That god might forgive even such as he if he did that.
It was only that Guerin, that idiot, curly headed mercenary, not even one of their own men, had caught the blow that was meant to end him with his own shield. Had seen his face, had seen his eyes, had seen and recognized him.
Had fucked him afterwards, in the bushes, while Alex shook and wept and begged his lack of comprehension. Who had looked him dead in the eye and said, “it doesn’t have to be like this, Alex Manes. Give me time to show you what it can be before you surrender to despair. Please.”
And Alex, desperate, undone, trousers hanging around his knees, instead of saying no, had said, “how much time? Because it’s been twenty eight years. I can’t bear much more.”
He could see the surprise in Guerin’s eyes, like he hadn’t expected that answer, hadn’t expected anything. See him scrambling, swallowing hard, and then finally, “Two weeks? Give me two weeks? Is that too long?”
And in the end, it wasn’t nearly long enough. No time would be. Vows and tatters, and mind and heart full of bright, bright light. He'd have to stay.