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A Kingdom or This

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Rath does not personally know many humans, but he recognizes this one.

He recognizes him from Isobel’s memory, hazy and blurred with pain when she shared it, but the features are unmistakable.

He makes the barest gesture with his hand, and immediately the human is brought to him.

Rath receives him in lavish private chambers.

Alex suspects – no, Alex has little doubt why he is here. He had known it was a risk that he would be recognized when he came to Antar. He had taken the chance anyway. If fate saw fit to punish him for his crimes, so be it.

It seems fate had precisely that idea.

“Your name?” Rath asks as soon as they are alone.

“Alex.”

“Alex Manes,” Rath says, and still Alex jolts with surprise at hearing the name fall from his lips. “That is you, is it not? A Manes man?”

“Yes,” Alex confirms tonelessly.

“A member of the Terran military?”

“Yes.”

“And tell me, were you at the Terran military outpost on Alpha Centauri B, 16 months ago almost to the day?”

“Yes,” he says, seeing no reason to lie when Rath already seems to know everything.

And besides, he refuses to flee from the consequences of who he is. What he is.

“I thought so,” he says, gesturing, and guards appear almost out of nowhere.

Alex doesn’t fight them when they strip him, drag him into the public hall where Rath receives petitioners on his throne, and string him up by the wrists.

“Sixteen months ago,” Rath explains to the gathered public. “Our lady Isobel was captured by humans. They dared lay a hand on her. Our ruler. Our queen.

A murmur goes through the gathered crowd, gazes flitting to Alex.

“There were five of them. A father, and four brothers. Today, we have the youngest of them here with us. Today, we will have justice.

He finishes speaking, and what follows is rapt silence as every gaze turns to Alex.

Alex stares back at Rath, who sits on his throne, his posture insouciant but his gaze intent. His right hand is adorned with five pointed finger-rings, gilded, encrusted with jewels, and attached to a bracelet by golden chains. A scepter of sorts, which gives him the right to punish and condemn as he sees fit.

Beside him, Isobel perches on a twin throne. The lines of her body are stark and tense as an artist’s angry charcoal drawing, her hair and makeup immaculate, and only her hands gripping the armrests of the throne reveal any tension.

Alex ensures his face is carefully blank and stares back at Rath.

He is no stranger to pain. His father had made sure of that, and after, in the military, he had become intimately familiar with it. Losing his leg had been only the latest in a long series of agonies. So when the whip first falls on his back, it is no worse than what has come before, and he holds Rath’s cold, dark gaze, unflinching.

But the punishment does not cease, and as the whip begins to hit bloody, already-broken skin, the agony grows, and it is all he can do to hold back his cries.

He doesn’t break Rath’s gaze.

Rath is watching him even more intently now. Alex knows what he’s waiting for: fear, begging, pained cries.

He does cry out when the whip falls again, any hope of silence forgotten as his back feels like it has caught fire, and still the beating does not stop.

He doesn’t give Rath the satisfaction of the other two things he awaits.

Finally, his legs give out, however much he struggles to hold himself up, until he’s left hanging by the wrists, the manacles digging into his skin. His vision swims, and though he tries to lift his head to meet Rath’s gaze again, it falls of its own volition.

The silence is deafening. So deafening, that at first Alex doesn’t realize that he no longer hears the hiss of the whip, but it hardly matters, because every inch of his back burns.

Alex hears rather than sees Rath descend the steps from his throne, Isobel beside him. A hand in his hair, each finger a cold, sharp point, and then his head is tugged back until he can see Rath’s face again.

He meets that unyielding gaze silently.

“He’s all yours, Iz,” Rath says, and Isobel approaches. “Whatever you want.”

“I want to see what he did. What they did. I don’t even remember most of it.”

Rath gestures, and Isobel closes her eyes. The next thing Alex knows is a tickling at the back of his skull, and suddenly, he’s reliving a memory.

 

“You won’t believe who we captured,” Flint says, gleeful.

Alex raises an unimpressed eyebrow. Flint gets excited anytime there’s anyone mildly important to interrogate.

“Isobel of Antar,” he says, and Alex gapes.

“If we have Isobel, she’s a valuable prisoner. We can use her to negotiate a ceasefire, a treaty with terms favorable to us – “

“What are you talking about?” Flint interrupts him. “A treaty? We aren’t going to negotiate with these monsters. Unconditional surrender or nothing. And she will tell us the weaknesses in their defenses. She’s bound to know.”

“You want to torture the royal head of Antar?” Alex asks, as sheer horror curdles within him. He knows his father and brothers have tortured prisoners, though he never took part himself. His father had always sneered that he didn’t have the stomach for it, and he was right.

“Yes.” It’s his father’s voice, and as always, the fear is immediate within Alex’s veins. “And you will watch. It’s time you grew up and developed a spine for this sort of thing.”

He turns to face his father.

“I won’t participate in torture.”

“You will do your duty as a Manes man, for once,” his father retorts. “Come.”

Alex follows, but he freezes in the doorway.

Isobel is – beautiful. He can see at first glance that she is a queen. But she is also terrified, a frightened animal strapped to a table, only the smallest bits of cloth to allow her some small amount of dignity.

 “Dad – “ he begins, and then the world spins as his father delivers a mighty slap to his face.

“Here, at least, do not embarrass me,” he says.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alex sees Flint watching, impassive.

He straightens, schooling his expression and watching as his father and brothers lay out the instruments of torture.

Waiting.

He would call the wait agonizing, but that would be an insult to Isobel’s screams. She struggles against her bonds, but no alien powers work here, and so she screams and screams as his father and brothers take turns, until Alex thinks he will hear nothing else for the rest of his life. She turns her head to the side, still screaming, and catches Alex’s eyes. He sees the terror there, in the few seconds before she loses consciousness.

They give up for the day. His father shoots him a look that isn’t disapproval, and Alex hates himself even more.

That night, Alex hacks the security, unlocking Isobel’s cell door and guiding her to escape with flickering lights in the hallways. He starts a ship remotely, and hacks the shield surrounding the station they’re on.

He leaves on a ship twenty minutes after she does.

 

He’s so out of it that it takes him several seconds to leave behind the memory that he’s just relived, so vivid it’s as if he was there again, and remember where he is. Hanging by the wrists, his vision swimming as Rath lets go of his head and it drops again.

It’s not him!” Isobel’s scream is shrill.

“But he’s the one in your memory,” Rath protests. “You saw him. I saw.”

“Take him down!” Isobel orders, and Alex hears a stampede of feet. “It’s not him.” Her voice sounds close to tears.

When they unchain him, he falls, his one good leg refusing to support him, and the sudden change of balance plunges him into unconsciousness.

 

He wakes to see Rath sitting before him, watching him intently.

He sighs, closing his eyes again and suppressing a groan. More of the torture, then.

Rath’s voice startles him. “You’re innocent.”

He blinks his eyes open again.

He is many things, but hardly innocent. After all, he is a Manes, as Rath himself had pointed out.

“You saved Isobel,” Rath says. “Why didn’t you tell me the truth?”

Blinking again, he realizes that he’s not chained up in a dungeon. No, he is lying on the softest bed he’s ever laid on, and his back is no longer afire.

“Would it have mattered?” he asks. “You had already decided my fate.”

“And you accepted that fate?” Rath presses.

Alex scoffs. “What would you have had me do, beg? I don’t beg.” That had been instilled in him by his father long ago, and it’s one of the only of his father’s gifts that he has any inclination to keep.

Rath rises from his seat and approaches. Alex tenses, and Rath slows his movements as he sits down on the bed and reaches for Alex’s wrist. He realizes he’s still wearing the metal cuffs they’d used to chain him up, the skin beneath the metal sore from where it had held his entire weight.

A second later, the cuffs spring open as if of their own volition, and Rath takes them off his wrists. His fingers are warm and gentle when he begins to massage his left wrist.

Alex blinks, wondering if he’s hallucinating from pain. But for that, he’d have to be feeling pain, would he not?

“I know words are hardly a sufficient reparation for what I have done to you, but I am sorry,” Rath says. “Truly.”

“You had me whipped half to death, and now you’re soothing my injuries. You’ll forgive me if I have trouble understanding your mixed signals,” Alex retorts before he can stop himself, and the hint of a smile flits over Rath’s lips.

“You are truly fearless if you can joke now,” Rath says. “You are remarkable.”

Rath doesn’t give him the opportunity to reply, rising to fetch what looks like a medical kit.

“I healed the worst of the injuries on your back,” he explains. “But the wounds are still there.” And then he sets about smothering some sort of pleasant-smelling healing cream onto Alex’s back and bandaging it.

He’s no longer wearing the finger rings, Alex notices; the sharp points of Rath’s power lie half-forgotten by his chair.

“You deign to do this yourself?” Alex asks.

Rath pauses his movements.

“I can fetch a healer, if you’d rather not have my hands on you, after I – after what I did.”

What the hell, Alex thinks. He’s already so far down the rabbit hole that up is down and the ruler of Antar is looking after his injuries. He may as well join the mad tea party at this point.

Besides, he finds he likes Rath’s hands on him. They are gentle, and careful. Practiced, like he’s done this before, though Alex can’t imagine when or why.

The part of his brain not addled by pain and confusion screams at him not to trust this, and it’s probably right.

But no one has ever been this gentle with him, and certainly no one who knew he was a Manes.

He is only human, he thinks as he sinks into feathery softness.

 

When he wakes, he feels good as new. His back barely twinges, the injuries feeling weeks-old, and he finds that his wrists are bandaged.

Rising, he finds clothing – not what he was wearing when he’d arrived, but rich Antaran robes, all silk and embroidery. Donning them, he steps warily out, and finds a guard in the antechamber.

“Captain,” the guard greets him with a bow, and Alex wonders at the title. He has not been called by that rank for sixteen months. “I will inform Rath that you’re awake.”

….

“Alex,” Rath greets. He seems to have composed himself somewhat, though he still fixes Alex with a guilt-filled gaze that, Alex thinks, hardly befits the ruler of Antar. “How are you?”

“Better,” he says honestly, and Rath nods, pleased.

There is silence for a moment.

Then –

“You can’t leave,” Rath informs him bluntly.

Alex raises an eyebrow.

“It’s not safe. This entire planet hates you for what they think you did to Isobel, and, um. I can’t really disabuse them of that notion. After how public your punishment was, it would – not be politically prudent to admit I punished the wrong man.”

Alex crosses his arms.

“I will not be your prisoner,” he says curtly. “After what you did to me, I’d think a political embarrassment is a small price to pay for my freedom.”

Rath sighs. “Even if I did – even if I publicly put my judgment into question for the entire planet – there’s no guaranteeing they’d believe me. They’d wonder what a Manes did to me to compromise my judgment. Here in the palace, everyone is loyal to me, and I can protect you. But outside it…Off-planet, even. You’d be forever looking over your shoulder.”

“I will not be your prisoner,” Alex repeats. “The only way for you to keep me here is, well. To chain me up again,” he says, and Rath flinches.

Alex shrugs. “I’ve been on the run since I helped Isobel escape. What’s one more planet gunning for my head?”

Rath makes an aborted movement, halfway to reaching for Alex’s face before his hand drops. He’s back to wearing the pointed rings, Alex notices.

“You are free. I will arrange for a ship. It is yours.”

“Thank you.”

“I will forever regret this,” Rath adds, his hazel eyes full of sadness, and Alex notices just how beautiful they are. “The offer of my protection stands. If you ever find yourself in need of it, you will always be welcome here.”

“One day, perhaps,” Alex says noncommittally to mask the sheer want inside him.  

 

The ship is iridescent, all the colors of a galaxy infused into sleek metal.

“It has the security codes to take you straight to the palace, should you ever return to Antar,” Rath explains. “And it will be coded to your DNA, once you touch it. I know it pales as an amend, but.” He shrugs, strangely unregal. “It seems to be all you will accept for the moment.”

“You are a man of honor,” Alex says, and Rath bows his head, his curls falling over his face. He seems so guileless, so human, in that moment, and Alex is helplessly drawn to him.

This is the man who watched him without pity as he screamed and bled, Alex reminds himself.

“This is goodbye, then,” he offers.

“I would ask you to stay a final time, but you have made your choice. Goodbye, Alex.”

He nods in farewell and turns before he can be caught in the magnetic pull of Rath’s sad, longing eyes.

He pulls to mind instead the memory of Rath’s dark, merciless gaze as he watched Alex’s punishment.

Rath was true to his word, and the ship comes alight at his touch, sleek and beautiful. Cutting edge.

The edge of the whip had cut his skin open too, he reminds himself.

But when he closes his eyes and breathes, he remembers only kind, sad eyes and gentle hands.

He considers the days stretching before him, one after the other, endless, empty, and lonely in the cold void of space. The very thought exhausts him, even as he values his freedom.

Rath’s hands had been so warm. So soft.

You’re soft, his father’s voice rings in his head, so often repeated. Soft, and weak. Always seeking the easy way out instead of being a real man. A Manes man would gladly pay the price rather than be a kept pet.

He spins around and stalks out of the ship before he can change his mind.

Rath is still standing where Alex had left him. Surprise and delight spread over his features as he sees Alex striding toward him, and it impels Alex forward when his steps stutter.

“You offered me protection?” he asks.

“Yes – “

“I accept.”

Rath’s face lights up in a smile.

“You will be safe here. You have my word.”

….

Rath is looking at him, always looking at him, his gaze unmistakably fond, but he never lays a hand on Alex. The warm, gentle touches with which he’d coaxed Alex to stay seem forgotten, and Alex would call the distance between them cold, except that Rath radiates warmth like an incandescent star.

And then there are the evenings, when Rath invites him to his chambers. Over chess, or some Antaran game, or simply a bottle of sparkling wine, they talk and talk.

The table between them prevents Rath from reaching out to touch, but his gaze caresses Alex just as well. He does not hide the longing in his eyes, but neither does he act on it.

Alex marvels at that: a man who lays his heart so bare, so fearlessly. He has long learned to shut every ounce of emotion up behind tall walls, and the fearlessness with which Rath razes his walls for Alex intoxicates him.

It is the man who had him whipped, Alex reminds himself. The man who watched him scream in pain. The man who would have tortured him to death. And yet all Alex can seem to feel is longing, because no one has ever loved him as fiercely as Rath loves Isobel. His father would have called him weak, for crying out as he bore the pain. Kyle had once called him a friend, and yet one day, he’d started being the one to deliver the punches. Even Liz and Maria, for all their friendship, would never have protected him the way Rath protected Isobel, and he is honest enough to admit to himself that he wishes someone would.

It is Isobel who invents a reason for him to be on Antar that protects him. It is her way of making amends, Alex realizes weeks later, when he gets to know her enough to understand that she apologizes with deeds, not words.

A Manes man, he is a valuable source of intelligence, and Antar believes it when Isobel tells the that he has trad his planet’s secrets for protection.

It makes him a traitor, but it protects him.

His father and brothers have believed that of him for sixteen months, and perhaps they aren’t wrong.

After that, Rath invites him to all the court functions. He has a place of honor. He is even invited to war council meetings, where he offers the occasional piece of intelligence.

Antar remembers what he has done, but Antar accepts him, out of necessity, or curiosity, or simply as a matter of unchangeable fact.

Most of Antar, that is. One day, a courtier lays a hand on Alex. He has not forgiven what Alex has done to his queen, and Alex finds his world spinning as a fist blindsides him. He rallies swiftly, and the courtier is hardly a match for a soldier like him in hand-to-hand combat, but he still comes away bleeding.

He has just put the courtier on the ground when Rath appears.

He is incandescent in his fury.

“Take him away,” Rath orders, not bothering to so much as glance at the man as he helps Alex up.

“Are you alright?” he asks softly.

Alex wipes the blood from his lip. “I will be,” he says.

“How dare he,” Rath seethes later, in his private chambers. “I will have him whipped for laying a hand on you.”

Alex fixes him with an amused look.

“Be sure you have the right man this time,” he says. “Wouldn’t want you to end up forced to protect someone else, too.”

Rath stares at him for a full second before bursting out laughing. He laughs and laughs, full and breathless, gasping for air. Alex leans back in his armchair, watching in amusement as the royal head of Antar is reduced to helpless giggles.

When Rath finally stops laughing, it is to a charged silence.

“Alex – “ His expression drowns in longing, the table like an unpassable barrier.

“You have to know,” Rath says finally. “There is nothing I wouldn’t do to protect you.”

Alex blinks. He had known that, to some extent – he is here under Rath’s protection, after all. But the heat with which Rath says it tells Alex he means more than the protection of his name and guards at his door.

“Like you would protect Isobel?” he asks.

“Yes,” Rath says, unhesitating.

He exhales softly.

The charge in the air builds around them until it is unbearable.

Rath watches him heatedly, statue-still.

Alex rises from his chair.

It would be easy to flee now. It’s what he would have done in the past, when someone came close to burrowing through his defenses.

He wants to flee, because if he doesn’t, he’ll raze those defenses himself and let Rath in.

“Spar with me,” he says instead.

“What?” Alex’s request clearly startles him.

“The fight today reminded me how dreadfully out of practice I am. Spar with me.”

Rath raises a pair of surprised eyebrows, but agrees.

 

“No cheating,” Alex says pointedly as they prepare. “No powers.”

“As you wish,” Rath agrees easily, a confident smirk dancing over his features.

He is eager, and Alex plays defensive. He evades and dances away until some of the feral joy fades from Rath, and that is when Alex strikes. He goes in low, balancing on his good leg and sweeping with his prosthetic. It's a feint but a good one and as Rath moves aside, Alex is there, striking low and hard against his floating ribs and while Rath stays strong, the harsh exhalation of his breath is enough that Alex know he's hit his mark.

They continue like that, a wild dance, and slowly Alex falls into the familiar ritual of the movements. He pushes more than he backs away and by the time he and Rath are close, breath heavy and skin slick with sweat, he's exhausted, but mostly high on the primitive power he wields here, where there are no words or emotions to get tangled in, only pure straightforward defense and attack.

Rath is enjoying it too, Alex can tell, his grin as wide when Alex surprises him with a blow as when he lands one himself. Alex wonders if he’s hoping for victory or defeat.

Rath isn't expecting the uppercut to his chin, or the flat palm to his sternum and Alex doesn't give him time to recover. Pressing forward and hooking a heel expertly under Rath's calf to launch them both down. Momentum and his own weight help him control the fall until they land.

Quick as a viper, Alex pins Rath’s wrists before he has a chance to recover from the fall.

Rath doesn’t struggle, his smirk catlike in response to Alex’s own, and Alex discovers the answer to the question of which outcome Rath had hoped for.

He leans over Rath, stopping with his face millimeters away. Rath’s lips part on a surprised exhale, and he leans up, seeking to close the distance between them.

Alex does it for him, and Rath sinks into the kiss. He doesn’t try to flip them, and when Alex loosens the grip on his wrists, they only come up to tangle in his hair.

Kissing Rath is – sweet. That is the only word Alex has for it. Rath’s lips are soft, and they part for him easily, and yet somehow Alex is the one drowning.

“Take me to bed,” Alex says when they part, breathless from fighting and kissing.

 

Rath is still wearing the symbols of his power, those pointed blades tipping his fingers, when they reach the bedroom. He sees Alex’s gaze fall to them.

“You want me to take them off?” Rath asks, and Alex stills for a breath, understanding what Rath is offering. He has only seen Rath take them off once.

“No. Keep them.”

When Rath slices the remaining clothes off Alex’s body, he wields the blades so expertly that Alex feels nothing but the slightest whisper of them ghost over his skin.

Rath’s skin is hot when he pulls Alex into an embrace, and his every touch burns in an entirely different way from the way his back had burned in agony beneath the whip. The only points of cold are the metal on his hand, and as Alex gasps beneath the onslaught of his ardent kisses, the pads of those blade-tipped fingers trace, softer than the wing of a moth, over the path the whip took on his back.

The last of Alex’s walls crumbles into dust.

 

After, they lie on their sides, facing each other in post-coital bliss while Rath’s fingers intently explore the scars on Alex’s chest. The sweat is still cooling on their bodies, and a bead of it entices Alex at the crook of Rath’s neck and shoulder. He wants to lick it off, and his cock stirs in anticipation at what that might lead to.

“Do you want to have me whipped?” Rath asks suddenly. Offers, even, with his tone.

Alex recoils, appalled.

“Why would I do that?” he asks.

Rath shrugs, seemingly unaffected by Alex’s reaction.

“To balance the odds?” He runs a hand over Alex’s side, where some of the whip marks curl around from his back. “Perhaps it would help you forgive me.”

Alex frowns. “I have forgiven you,” he says, and it is Rath’s turn to be startled. “I don’t need to punish you to forgive you. And I wouldn’t be in your bed if I hadn’t.”

“I don’t know if I’ve earned it,” Rath confesses.

“You said you’d do for me what you did for Isobel, and I believe it,” he says. “That balances any scale, in my view.”  

“Still.” Rath takes the symbol of his power off his hand and reaches for Alex’s. It fits easily onto his calloused fingers, and Rath smirks, satisfied by the sight. “That power is yours.”

Alex studies the intricate filigree, the beautiful arabesques and gems with sharp edges that adorn his fingers. He thinks he’d cut himself a dozen times a day, wearing this, but Rath seems to have learned to perform any task in them without harm to himself.

Perhaps, he thinks, the idea is that wielding the power of life and death never comes without danger.

Tentatively, he reaches to trace down Rath’s side and hip, and Rath stays very, very still as the blade runs over his skin.

Oh.

“I won’t hurt you,” Alex says. “But I do like having you in my power so.”

“I was always in your power,” Rath confesses. His eyes are dark with arousal.

Alex hums and traces the V of Rath’s pelvis with a sharp point, careful to avoid his hardened cock.

Rath lets out a shaky breath.

Oh, but Alex is going to have fun with this.

 

It’s only after, when they both appear for a court function and courtiers gasp, that they realize Alex is still wielding Rath’s power.

Rath doesn’t ask for it back.