Flynn squinted at the offending parchment; the words and figures blurred mockingly back. Heaving a sigh, he set down his quill, moved his oil lamp, and thumped his head down on his desk. His dishevelled hair nudged the stacks of sealed envelopes patiently waiting for the messengers at daybreak.
The training yard was a four minute jog and five flights of stairs away; six hundred and twenty two cobblestones formed the path to his quarters, roughly a hundred and thirty eight steps. He would see neither tonight. Far below him in the courtyard, he could hear the indiscernible chattering of the night patrol, murmurs of voices shuffled between boot scrapes and thumping spears. He wondered what they were talking about; he thought he could guess.
Depending on who you asked, the loss of blastia was a manufactured crisis or divine punishment for humanity’s sins, but everyone was in agreement that the Empire was failing its citizens in its aftermath. They were doing too much or not enough to fix the rampant famine, the soaring inflation, or the meteorological retaliation. Letters upon letters flooding the mailroom. Civil unrest, mass riots, worker strikes. Worst of all was the lineups: a veritable snake of people in fineries and rags, winding from the royal quarter all the way into the public square of Zaphias every day, begging, pleading for audience with His Majesty Ioder or Commandant Flynn or someone, anyone, who could help them with whatever troubles they had. As if any of them had that luxury. As if any of them even could.
There were moments when Flynn remembered why he signed up for this: a split-second smile, a bill passed into law, a childish drawing pinned on his wall. Those moments were few and far between and only getting scarcer. His sword rested against his desk, more decorative than functional nowadays. He pictured, briefly and childishly, of hurling it into the wall.
Of course not. That would be unbecoming.
“Sleeping on the job, Commandant?”
Flynn started and reached for his sword, knocking over his inkwell; blue ink splashed the stacks, thoroughly drenching the sealed letters. Flynn swore, dropped his sword, and tried to salvage his correspondence; he blocked the pooling ink with his gauntlet, the metal staining blue.
The visitor laughed darkly from his window perch, a barely-there flash of teeth. “Smooth. I expected better out of you, Commandant. Imagine if I were an assassin.”
Flynn ignored him. His desk became a small dam of sodden papers. He elbowed a stack to the floor and out of the way of the flood; they gleamed in the dim lamplight, speckled with ink.
Yuri watched Flynn fuss with his paperwork for a few more moments, then strode over. He tipped Flynn’s face upwards, scabbed knuckles rasping over cheeks.
“Hi, Yuri.” Flynn allowed himself be kissed and felt dully triumphant as his gauntlet stained Yuri’s sleeve. Not that Yuri cared about his clothes. “Doors.”
“Guards. Or, supposed to be. They’re slacking.” Yuri’s hand was still grazing Flynn’s face like it was a map he wanted to memorize, water to slake his thirst. The life he chose didn’t allow for want of something warmer than a blade.
Flynn dislodged Yuri’s hand and looked back at his desk, leaving Yuri adrift, and the small smile slid off Yuri’s face. “Flynn?”
“Sorry.” Chagrined, Flynn turned back and pressed a kiss into Yuri’s shoulder, catching a mouthful of hair. “I really need to get this done. Re-done.” He forced a smile as he swept his inky dam into a nearby bin and sat back down. The wooden desk gleamed, streaky with its new paint. “I wish you’d written. I would’ve made some time.”
“Yeah, we both suck at that. Making time, I mean. You’re better about writing.”
Flynn tore open a random inky envelope and started copying his previous missive. Yuri leaned back against the desk, still and impossibly quiet; Flynn’s hand flew across the page, the quill scratching audibly in time with his breathing.
Yuri wasn’t usually one to offer comforting words and Flynn was grateful for it; more often than not it led to arguments, even if they each saw the other’s ideological value. They fucked (not often enough), they sparred (also not often enough), they talked about problems without trying to solve each other’s. Letters paved the path between them, love and longing sent months apart.
It was good they found each other. Yuri may be the definition of attachment issues but Flynn was no better; when was he supposed to find time to settle down? In between the overhaul of the Imperial Knights and the sixth tax reform meeting this week? After the long nights pouring over witness testimonies and dead bodies and knowing, knowing it was in vain, when the jails were too full and the courts even fuller, when monsters were not the only ones doing monstrous things?
The quill snapped in Flynn’s hand on the third paragraph, stabbing a fresh wound through the parchment, bleeding wet and blue. He stared at it, the hole a question with no answer, a need never filled. With a strangled cry, Flynn crumpled the page and threw it hard.
The ball ricocheted off the far wall and into the dark where the oil lamp’s weak glow couldn’t reach. Flynn slammed his fist into his desk, breathing hard.
Yuri shifted against his desk, dark eyes searching Flynn’s face. He laid a callused hand on Flynn’s, an additional dull weight. Gauntlets didn’t conduct warmth.
“Enough, Commandant,” Yuri said quietly. “We can’t lose you too.”
Flynn made a bleak noise in his throat. He loved Yuri, loved him so much it hurt, but the two of them had always walked a very thin line of need and needing to be needed. Yuri had promised to try his way, but these nights were longer than the days, long without end, months-long goodbyes. Some part of Flynn would always wonder, always worry at the news of some fresh unsolved murder, wonder who wielded the wrathful blade.
And he couldn’t. He couldn’t be the tether between humanity and Yuri’s dark side. It was a feat even angels couldn’t reach.
“Hey.” Yuri ran his thumb down the back of his gauntlet. Flynn couldn’t feel a thing. “You should get some sleep.”
“I already did.”
“Sleep through the night. For a change.” A beat of pause, then Yuri actually rolled his eyes. “Where’s that hardass lieutenant—”
“Captain Sodia was promoted and deployed to Heliord, which I wrote you about three months ago.” Yuri’s features flickered with chagrin, but Flynn plowed on. “Lucius has been deployed to Halure. Colette died in the line of duty last week and hasn’t been replaced. Hunter is struggling to reinforce Deidon Hold. I could go on, but every single one of them out there is having no easier of a time than I am, I promise you that.”
“I know it’s been hard, Flynn. I’m not blind.”
“No, you don’t,” Flynn snarled, the tatters of his control snapping. “Dahngrest is used to holding their own, your population capped by the Union’s grace and admission, and you’ve got fighters by the handful defending one very fortified, very skilled city. I have civilians on five continents. I have the sick, the young, the elderly, the injured, none of whom knows what to do with a spear if you shove it up their ass. I have an entire world reliant on blastia for their existence and it is falling apart and I can’t hold it together!”
“We’ve cut taxes and bled the treasury dry, but it doesn’t matter, because gald means nothing when there’s nothing to buy, when there aren’t enough people.” The words were tumbling out now, high and desperate and on the verge of tears. Flynn slashed one hand through the air, knocking over a pile of parchment. “Without blastia powering our machines, manufacturing and harvest are at a standstill. Without blastia we use fuel—the mines can’t keep up production, transport takes four times longer, and prices soar. Without barriers, monsters are threatening every single settlement and we don’t have the numbers or training to hold them back. Without blastia artes we can’t heal, and there aren’t enough gels and wishes in the world to keep the hurt and sick alive. Supply chains are broken, people are dying, and I can’t fix it.”
He swallowed savagely, and his next words were thick: “I can’t fix it, and I can’t tell them why. I send out order after order, people are begging at the palace gates, and I can’t tell them why I did this, why they’re hurting, why they die.”
Yuri gripped his hand, hard, like he could carry away both their sins. “That wasn’t you. The blastia thing was my idea.”
Flynn barked a laugh and stared up at him through damp lashes. “They don’t know that.”
There was a very long silence.
“Fuck.” Flynn scrubbed roughly at his eyes. The burrs of his gauntlets tore at his face, little stinging pinpricks. “I’m sorry. I’m not blaming you.”
“Sounds a little bit like you are,” Yuri said softly.
“I’m not.” Flynn hunched over, head between his knees. “I knew the stakes. I knew the blastia was the only chance we had at driving back the Adephagos, that we were all dead otherwise. That was the deal—you save the world, I put it back together. And I’m trying. I’m trying, but I can’t do it. I don’t know why I ever thought I could. I’ve—” his voice cracked on the last word, hitching wet and vulnerable “—I’ve buried so many people, Yuri.”
That was the deal, and he couldn’t keep up his end of it. Would Yuri keep his, then? Would that shining tether snap too, like everything else?
“Hey.” Yuri’s sword clattered to the floor. He knelt down in front of Flynn, their foreheads touching, Yuri’s hand cool against his burning face. “You did save the world. You were there with me at the end. I don’t get extra credit for holding up Rita’s sword. And—fine, yeah, I saved the world, but you’re the one making it worth saving. Okay?”
Tell that to the lower quarter with mold on their walls, because the damn fountain froze and flooded with every frost and thaw. Tell that to the Aspians, the few who survived, their homes destroyed and living off of Halure’s waning charity. The daily attrition reports, knights who quit or fled because they couldn’t handle being sent out to die. Ted’s father, sick with pneumonia, and no gels or panacea in sight. They hardly even have glass for the bottles anymore.
He couldn’t save the people he grew up with. What the hell was he doing, trying to save the world?
Yuri shook his head and pulled Flynn in. Flynn collapsed into him, muffling one shuddering scream into Yuri’s shoulder, months of grief and dread and helplessness. Gauntlets dug into Yuri’s front until fabric and skin tore. Yuri didn’t flinch.
Finally, finally, Flynn pulled back, dashing his hand savagely across his eyes. He stared, dull and unsurprised, at the red on his fingertips, and could not remember feeling more drained. “Go, Yuri.” He didn’t recognize his own voice. “I’ve got work to do.”
Yuri ripped the fresh parchment Flynn was reaching for right out of his hand. “You are going to sleep. Marching orders when you’re like this? You’ll send them to the bottom of the ocean, Commandant.”
“These have to go out tod—”
The left hook slammed into his cheekbone, sending Flynn sprawling from his chair; he landed in a clanging heap on the floor, stars in his eyes and copper in his mouth. Yuri didn’t let him recover. He bent down and threw Flynn’s arm over his shoulders. Flynn’s world abruptly changed axis as Yuri hauled him up and dragged him out the door.
Yuri has visited (infiltrated) the castle enough times to barely need the torches limning the hallways, only pausing at the turns. His tread was near-silent; Flynn’s greaves clanged with each step. They spoke only once:
“No guards?” Yuri murmured at the third turn, more to himself than anything.
Flynn spat blood on the ground. His head was still ringing. “Short staffed.”
In Flynn’s quarters, Yuri lit a candle and stripped Flynn of his armour with practiced efficiency. Flynn sat on his bed, eyes closed and unresisting, only grimacing when the removal of his cloak and tunic tugged at his throbbing face. The trappings of his station clattered and clanged to the floor, and Yuri finally pushed him into the sheets, skin on overheated skin. “Sleep.”
“Stay? Please?” But it was wasted breath; the bed was already shifting with Yuri’s weight. “Wake me up in the morning.”
He fell asleep almost before he finished speaking. The last thing he remembered was Yuri sitting beside him, fingers carding through his hair.
Yuri did not wake him up in the morning. Flynn woke to a splitting headache, teeth chattering and every muscle on fire. He reached instinctively beside him and came up empty, only a dip in the linens were Yuri had been.
“Yuri?” It came out as an unintelligible wheeze; his throat felt like it’d been filled with ground glass. The room was empty, cold, and silent. He didn’t know why he ever expected otherwise.
Flynn pushed himself up gingerly. The world promptly spun sideways as a wave of nausea hit him so hard he tipped over, falling off the bed in a tangle of twisted sheets. His stomach seized, then promptly lost the battle against the nausea as he threw up on the floor. When he finally stopped retching, he managed to wipe off his mouth with the nearest handful of sheets and passed out again.
Sleep was a blur of feverish dreams, hacking coughs, and bone-deep aches as he finally succumbed to the exhaustion and burnout. At some point, someone hauled him back into bed. At some point, someone tried to get him to drink; both plain water and diluted panacea potion (with its distinctive astringent taste) were immediately, violently retched back out. Eventually, his sleep shifted to dreamless black, punctuated occasionally by a cold dampness on his face that reminded him of Repede’s nose.
Some time later, Flynn stirred slowly to a tickle in his throat and sneezed himself awake, once, twice. Groaning, he squinted at the bright sunlight peering against the closed curtains. His eyes felt sticky and his pulse pounded in his head, patchy clarity struggling beneath brain fog.
He was still struggling to sit up when the door hinges squeaked. Yuri walked in and paused, surprise mingling with relief. “You’re awake.”
Flynn smiled wanly back. What came out, without conscious thought, was, “you used the door.”
His words were still mostly inaudible, but Yuri seemed to have intuited them anyway, his mouth curling into an oddly soft smirk. “Someone’s feeling better.” He poured a glass of water from a pitcher on the dresser that had not been there before and sat down beside Flynn, helping him upright.
Flynn accepted the glass and drained it, wincing a little at the swallows. He grazed his swollen face with a fingertip; it still throbbed. “Bastard.”
“Not sorry.” Yuri looked mildly chagrined anyway. He pressed a packet of apple gel into Flynn’s hand and scowled at Flynn’s expression. “It’s mine, okay? Eat it.”
He meant well. Flynn knew he did. And Dahngrest was affected by the worldwide shortages, no doubt about it. But for Yuri to casually throw him a gel for a black eye, or a panacea for a flu, when thousands of citizens across five continents were losing limbs, livelihoods, lives…
They really did live in different worlds now.
Flynn curled his fingers into a fist around the gel. “Someone else needs it more.” That sounded better, more wine-rough than blasted gravel, the rawness of his throat easing.
Yuri huffed, a wisp of a breath. “Fine, whatever. I gave it to you, so you can do whatever you want with it. Throw it out for all I care.” Flynn wouldn’t, nor did Yuri believe he would.
After a moment, Yuri wrapped an arm around Flynn’s waist. Flynn leaned into Yuri’s shoulder. They slotted right next to each other, just like before, but there was a brittleness between them, almost audible in its crunch. You could not avoid walking on eggshells once you realized the ground was nothing but.
They stayed like that, just breathing. Flynn was still a little lightheaded.
Finally, Flynn sighed. “How long was I out?”
“About five days, give or take.”
“Five—” Flynn stiffened and would’ve jumped up had Yuri not tightened his hold. “The opords—”
“Relax. I dealt with them.” Yuri’s voice was lazy, deceptively calm.
Flynn narrowed his eyes, ire sharpening his grated voice into something pitchy and harsh. “Dealt how?”
“I wrote them—ow!” Flynn headbutted Yuri in the chin and they split apart, clutching their respective heads. “Damn it, Flynn!”
“You—wrote them,” Flynn breathed in furious, horrified disbelief, blood roaring in his ears. Opsec violation all but danced in front of his eyes like stars. He tried to say more, but a wave of bone-deep coughing overtook him first, making him sway where he sat.
Yuri glared back, still rubbing his sore chin, even as he reached over to steady Flynn. “Relax. I just copied out the ones you spilt ink over.” He considered. “Fixed a few spelling errors. Nothing I wasn’t supposed to.”
He wasn’t supposed to anything. “Your handwriting doesn’t even look like mine!”
“Well lately yours look like shit, I think mine was an improvement! You were right, okay?” Yuri added quickly as Flynn drew in a ragged breath, “they were important. They needed to go out. I had to guess at a few points where the ink completely drowned the words, but I didn’t change anything. Judy will vouch.”
“Judith will—” Court martial joined the mantra pulsing in his head.
“I was going to fill out a few more that you hadn’t done, but she talked me out of it,” Yuri muttered.
Flynn buried his face in his hands and tried to breathe. He was too lightheaded for this. “Spirits, Yuri. Don’t you ever, ever do that again.”
“Stop working yourself to death and I won’t have reason to,” Yuri shot back; just like that, they were kids again, arguing and fighting and loving, skinned knees and bruised knuckles and tackles out of windows.
Would Yuri still laugh all the way down? Flynn wasn’t sure. Their heads were still as hard as they used to be, but so little else has remained the same. They’d settled their scores over the years, again and again and again, but new ones always built up.
Five days. Flynn rubbed his face, wincing at the still-throbbing bruise. He missed so many meetings, the operation orders Yuri hadn’t falsified needed to go out, the representative from Aurnion would’ve arrived… “I need to—”
“You need to shut up,” Yuri interrupted flatly. “I told Ioder you were indisposed. Half the healers in the castle can vouch for how sick you’ve been.” He scowled, a harsh slash in his face. “Hell of a time for Estelle to be away.”
The world wouldn’t wait up for him. When was the last time he took a vacation? Before he was made captain, Flynn was sure. How long ago was that?
“So get off your ass,” Yuri went on, “and get dressed. I need you.”
Flynn glared up through his lashes. “Why?”
Yuri hesitated, annoyance slackening out of his expression. “Look, what you said the other night, the production problems, the lack of healing artes, the monsters…I can’t help any of that. But I can help with transport. So I begged off my guild job and borrowed Ba’ul. We can pick up whatever’s ready to go.” He looked away, deeply uncomfortable. “Sodia told me about them, but they won’t release them to me, nor does she have the authority to make them. So I need you.”
“Sodia?” This was her idea? They hated each other’s guts.
Yuri snorted. “Personal feelings aside, I’ll hand it to her: she’s damn good at her job.” He looked back at Flynn, that oddly soft smirk lighting his face. “Too bad she’s not around anymore.”
Flynn looked away with a wry twist of his mouth. Sodia had been…his rock, his right hand, the only other person he trusted at his back. Witcher had gone to help out in Deidon Hold with Hunter. Lucius, Colette, Julius…he’d sent all his friends away to carry out their duties, to uphold their oaths. There’d be others, sure; he’d train more recruits, promote new seconds…and, one by one, keep sending them out.
He was so tired of carrying the capital by himself. Yuri played a lone wolf, but he wasn’t entirely alone, and he could up and see his friends whenever he wanted. Flynn missed his friends.
The train of thought wasn’t getting him anywhere. “You don’t have a ship anymore.” They had no one to pilot it after Patty left. “What are you going to carry the cargo with?”
“That’s why I’ve been running around the last few days. Judy came looking for me when I missed check-in, I dropped them off at Egothor, stopped by Heliord for Sodia, and then picked up the Fiertia from Kaufman. Ba’ul can only fly so fast.”
“And Ba’ul is okay with this? Being a pack mule?” Brave Vesperia barely even rode Ba’ul anymore, save for emergencies. The Entelexeia had earned his leisurely days.
“He wasn’t thrilled about it, but I asked real nicely, and he likes you. As much as he can like anyone not Judy, anyway.” Yuri cocked a brow. “It’s still work, if that makes you feel better. So, you in, Commandant?”
And of course, he was.
It was not quite a vacation. But it was fresh air, clear skies, and a near-complete lack of responsibilities. No dignitaries to entertain, no fires to put out, no drills to supervise, no paperwork to soldier through. The Fiertia was only so big, made even smaller by the cargo; Yuri couldn’t avoid Flynn even if he had wanted to.
They sparred (once, and Flynn lost badly. Ba’ul firmly shut down further inadvertent attempts at destabilizing a mid-air ship). They argued. They fucked. They slept, curled in on each other, swords always within arm’s reach. Flynn missed both sunset and sunrise three days in a row.
“You look better, Commandant,” Yuri remarked over his omelet in a moment of rare tenderness.
“Mm.” It was the happiest Flynn has been in a very long time. And if he and Yuri were too loud, well, neither Ba’ul nor the cargo would judge.
Heliord’s patrolling knights spotted them quickly—it was hard to miss an Entelexeia blotting out the sky. But it was Sodia’s voice that rang out above the din, hard and clear and commanding: “hold your weapons!”
By the time Flynn and Yuri disembarked, the entire patrol unit was already standing at attention, saluting in crisp, well-trained unison. “Sir!”
Flynn nodded. “At ease.” His voice was only a little hoarse.
Sodia dropped her arm and her spine relaxed a fraction. “Commandant.” Her broad smile dimmed as she noted the vivid purple blotching Flynn’s face. Her eyes narrowed and she looked at Yuri. “Yuri.” It was both a greeting and an accusation.
Yuri’s head dipped in a sardonic nod. It was the most amiable greeting Flynn has ever seen from the two of them.
“It’s good to see you, Sodia.” Sodia turned back to Flynn and her smile reached her eyes again. Flynn gripped her hand, their gauntlets clinking. “You got your shipment for me?”
“Of course, sir. How many people do you need to help unload yours?”
Flynn’s smile turned rueful. “No, this here is enough. There isn’t much.”
There never was, these days.
Sodia inventoried the shipments as the boxes went in and out: coal, oil, timber, fabric, gels, medical supplies, produce…copper, steel, grains, meat… Fortune’s Market still had inventory (spirits alone knew how—Flynn has to admire the tenacity of guilds) but even without gouging most citizens had trouble with the prices nowadays. It was a seller’s market, through and through. Supply and demand.
Still, he wished he could manage more disaster relief than this.
Sodia went over her lists one more time, faint disappointment in her face. “Is this all, sir?”
“Yes.” Everything else on the Fiertia was earmarked for the other cities, rationed quantities meted out by size, population, need. Disaster relief for all meant no one got enough.
“If we’re done,” Yuri drawled, lazy and laconic, “I’m heading back to the Fiertia. Ba’ul took off for the night.”
“Unnecessary. I’ve already sent a unit to guard your ship.” She ignored Flynn’s surprise and added coolly, “after all, there are Empire resources on that ship. It would be irresponsible for me to leave it unguarded.”
Yuri’s mouth twisted into a small scowl. “I didn’t ask you.”
“You could go back, of course,” Sodia went on, and Flynn bit his lip against the smile. He has so missed this unyielding, rock-steady support from one who never backed down from a fight. “But I’m not withdrawing my men. A cargo ship with highly sought-after resources and one man guarding it? You’re just begging for bandits. Good as you are, Yuri Lowell, they’ll strip that ship by sheer numbers before you defeat them all. I am not losing a single apple off of that ship.”
Yuri stared at her a moment longer, then whirled and stormed off. Sodia watched him leave, and yes, that was definitely a smirk. She made no attempt to hide it either as she turned back to Flynn. “Shall I get a room prepared for you tonight?”
Flynn shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. I’ll be at the inn.”
To her credit, Sodia’s expression didn’t change, and Flynn was grateful for it. “Yes sir.”
It was, at best, a faint disapproval, but Flynn has disappointed so many people this barely made a blip. He swallowed and changed the subject. “How is Heliord?” He saw the defaced blastia in the city square. Once a shining symbol of a new city’s beginning, the cracked body was now marked with graffiti and smelling of urine.
Sodia’s smile was rueful and tired. “Just like everywhere else, sir.”
“And the lower level?” The words tasted like ash in his mouth. There shouldn’t even be a lower level like this. Even the lower quarter in Zaphias had their own entry point into the city. Heliord’s labourer camp, now converted to a lower level of dwellings, was accessible only by a rickety lift, its denizens literally penned in. Above them, the upper level—the nobles’ quarter—stretched on, new houses erected, the paint fresh and windows shiny.
Sodia’s smile shaded sadder. “Just like everywhere else, sir.”
Flynn heaved a sigh. So even that didn’t change. “Do you mind if I walk around a bit?”
“Are you asking me for permission, sir?” Sodia sounded slightly amused despite herself.
“You’re the highest ranking officer stationed here,” Flynn pointed out. He really did miss her at his back. “I’ll defer to your experience for your city. Is that a yes, Captain?”
Sodia’s brows twitched. There was a confidence in her that hadn’t been there before: still his second, but no longer in his shadow. “Permission granted, sir.”
Flynn found Yuri in the lower level of Heliord, morosely prowling the streets like a predator. Yuri wasn’t nobility or military, but his dress and equipment screamed money beyond these denizens, and the skill to wield them too. People gave Yuri a wide berth that grew even wider when Flynn joined, resplendent in his armour and tunic. In the waning dusk, Flynn positively glowed.
This was even his travel armour, functional and relatively plain, and yet it was luxury beyond these people’s means.
Neither of them forgot where they started from, but they were those boys no longer.
“It’s the lower quarter all over again,” Flynn murmured. He was seriously reconsidering his distribution of supplies, but which city didn’t have this problem? The nobles and the rich could buy out the shops, inflated though the prices may be; the working poor just made do or didn’t. And now, when it wasn’t just greed, but a factual lack worldwide…
“Cumore told them they’d be welcomed as nobility,” Yuri said, voice tight. “That if they work themselves to the bone and then worked harder, they’d be the next rags to riches story. He worked them to death and buried their bones.”
Yuri broke Cumore’s nose, once. Cumore had been no kinder to the knight cadets than the citizens he later presided over, and Yuri had punched him in the face. It had been what led Yuri to leave the knights. Now—irrationally, belatedly—Flynn wished he’d had the chance to rearrange Cumore’s face too.
“And what—” Flynn didn’t get to finish. Beside him, Yuri stiffened, surprise blurring into a snarl; he broke into a sprint, long hair a dark ribbon behind him.
“Hey!” Flynn tore off after him. Five strides in, he saw what Yuri had: two dark shapes in the mouth of the next abandoned alley, one against a wall, the other shape’s hand held high. And, in that hand, the unmistakable glint of a knife.
Yuri was faster and caught the person’s arm just as it started descending. A split second later Flynn slid between victim and attacker, his own arm raised; the knife clinked off of Flynn’s vambrace and bounced off into the dark.
“Huh?” It’d happened so fast the man—the boy, he was scarcely older than Karol, he could’ve been a kid brother to either of them—hadn’t even realized he’d been caught. “Hey, let go!”
“That’s enough.” Yuri’s words were measured and glacial.
The boy twisted hard in Yuri’s grip and barely budged an inch. He couldn’t quite crane his neck to look at Yuri so he glared at Flynn instead, gaze flickering from blonde hair to polished iron. “Now knights care about our fights?”
Flynn saw Yuri blink, taking in the clothes of the boy, even as Flynn darted a glance behind at the victim he was protecting. Both were about the same age, dressed in the simple tunics of the working class, patches in the elbows and other worn places. No nobles abusing servants. No cuts from diamond rings.
He could almost see Yuri’s mind recalling two different boys, shouting and laughing, fighting each other in the streets and tackling each other down stairs…
But they had been dumb kids and best friends and moreover, fought back. Even as Yuri’s fingers slackened, Flynn tensed. His voice came out hoarse, still winded from his run. “We care when someone, anyone, is stabbing another with a knife.”
The boy fisted his other hand. “He owes me money. A lot of money.”
Yuri’s eyes narrowed and his hand tightened on the boy’s arm again. “A lot of money, huh? You got a lot of money to loan out?”
The boy’s mouth opened and closed before finally hardening into a grim line. He yanked at his arm again, still ineffectively. “Yeah, he owes me.” He glared at the other, trembling boy behind Flynn’s shoulder. “Pay up.”
“With what?” Flynn broke in incredulously. “He obviously doesn’t have the gald. It’s a worldwide calamity out there.”
“I don’t care. He don’t pay, I don’t get pai—” he bit off the last word, face contorting.
Get paid… “That’s not your money, is it?” There was a rustle behind Flynn as the victim wriggled free and bolted away, but Flynn scarcely noticed. “You’re an enforcer.”
Yuri’s entire face darkened, every line stilling, fit to bleed. “You’re a sellout.”
The boy went rigid. “It pays.” He turned glittering eyes to Flynn’s sword, then to the scabbard hanging in Yuri’s other hand. “Don’t you? Job’s a job.”
“By victimizing others? They can’t pay, so you kill them?” Yuri’s voice was flint-sharp, his expression terrible and dangerous and utterly stricken. “For a couple of pieces of gald?”
“I’m trying to survive!” he shouted back. “What would you know about being poor, you—you—” he couldn’t seem to categorize Yuri, so he glared at Flynn, his arm still pinned in Yuri’s vicegrip. “You rat bastards in your shiny towers. So what if I get out? What would you know about that, knight?”
Flynn took a deep breath and resisted the urge to shove a gauntlet through his chest. “I grew up an orphan in the slums of Zaphias. I’m as street rat as they come.”
The boy clearly didn’t believe him. “So you got out how? Struck gald? I’ll strike gald my own way.” His wild gaze flickered from the shiny pauldrons to embroidered tunic and back, venom and hatred and something like hunger glistening his face.
“How much gald are they worth? Fifty? A hundred? Five hundred?” Yuri looked like he was seconds away from snapping his wrist—or worse. “That’s what their lives are worth to you? Is that how much yours is worth, too?”
“Do you deserve to be a killer? You don’t get to take that back.” Flynn’s voice came out worn and hollow, like it was echoing from inside his armour, somewhere far, far away. “There are better ways than this.”
“Knights? What, you’ll help? You’re the ones working us to death.” The boy sneered, an empty, bitter grimace. “My parents are buried under your cobblestones. I’ll take my chances with this.”
Yuri made a low, feral sound in his throat. For one infinitesimal moment Flynn thought Yuri was going to strike—but Yuri grabbed his waist, pivoted, and literally threw the boy down the street. He landed with a strangled scream and laid there, crumpled and twitching.
Yuri didn’t look at the boy. Flynn couldn’t keep his eyes away. Hanks and Meredith and Tom and all those others in their corner of the lower quarter made life bearable for two orphans with big dreams, but poverty didn’t much make for laughter and light. Violence begot more violence and the cycle repeated.
Flynn suddenly felt more tired than he’d ever been in his life.
“Hey, kid.” The boy froze from his struggle to get upright. Flynn didn’t recognize his own voice. “There will be supplies distributed tomorrow. Go line up.”
The boy knelt, halfway to standing. A long moment passed in stillness.
Then, with a wretched sound that sounded like a sob, the boy tore himself to his feet and ran away.
At headquarters, Sodia looked more surprised by her superior giving her a report than anything Flynn actually said. She simply replied, with that sad, sad smile, “sir, you didn’t even get his name.”
They retired to the inn in silence. Yuri helped Flynn out of his armour; Flynn divested Yuri of his tunic. In bed, they curled into each other: Flynn’s forehead on Yuri’s throat, Yuri’s nose in Flynn’s hair, and just breathed. Every so often, they’d shift: a touch here, a tangle there. Fingers skated, warmth without pressure, over skin, bones, scars, every mark a story. They did not shake.
“You didn’t hurt him,” Flynn finally said, voice thin. He was burning up again.
Yuri traced a long, knotted scar from collarbone to ribcage—assassination attempt number four, or six, Flynn couldn’t remember—where it melded with the burn mark that had been Alexei’s parting gift at Zaude. “You thought I would.” It was more statement than question. The snort of laughter held no humour at all. “Sorry to disappoint.”
Flynn shook his head against Yuri’s chest, his eyes screwed shut and fever bright. That hadn’t been what he’d meant.
Or maybe it had. Yuri viewed Ioder’s pardon with a mix of apathy and scorn, like it was one more piece of evidence that justice would never be served, that the system was still corrupt. Like the only way this would ever end rightly to him would be a battle to the death, and him skewered on Flynn’s sword.
It terrified Flynn. It always would.
They weren’t there, yet.
They were quiet for another long moment, Flynn’s arm draped over Yuri’s hip, Yuri’s hand carding Flynn’s hair. Finally, Yuri sighed.
“You scared me that night, breaking faith.” Yuri’s voice was barely audible, an admission he couldn’t say face to face. “I promised I’d try your way. Moreover…I don’t want you to try mine.”
Flynn’s turn to laugh now, more hitch of breath than mirth. Some part of him was grateful, elated even, that the shining, frayed tether still held. Still a noose around his neck.
Someday, it’d strangle him.
He hoped Yuri wouldn’t see that day. More likely, Yuri would sever them first.
They stayed like that, twinned and tangled, until their last gasp of consciousness winked out with the spluttering candle. In that liminal space between dark and darker, Yuri held his hand.