breakfastofchampions: (greatheart: alex)
[personal profile] breakfastofchampions
Title: Two Traitors
Universe: Goldenhour
Word count: 4,540
Rating: PG
Warnings: mild violence, mentions of blood, references to death.
Characters/Pairings: Damien/Alex, John Good, references to Alex/James
Summary: Sometimes it is only our friends who keep us human.
Notes: Written for [livejournal.com profile] redvelvetaddict. <3 Set after James' death but years before Branwen comes to Best-Loved.



It wasn't that he didn't regret the loss of his honor and the tarnishing of his title. No, Damien was a knight, and he felt the sting of his knighthood being--not stripped from him, but partly peeled away, leaving him comparatively vulnerable, his power halved. They called him a severed knight now, those who knew what that meant. He was the only living severed knight, cut off from much of the power of knighthood, a power he'd known since he was little more than a boy.

He wouldn't say that it didn't ache. He felt it every day, the pain of what he had lost. His power was but the smallest part of what he'd once had that was now gone. He would feel his losses always. They would not fade with time. He was too old for that. He hadn't lost his resilience, but he'd lost much of his elasticity. He accepted that.

His life had changed, but he could yet change with it. He was no longer welcome in the palace, but perhaps that, too, would change with time, and the court would allow its only living, pardoned traitor to return.

Far more than the royal court, House Gladsome was a forgiving house. Damien's family had not abandoned him, and for that he was grateful. They let him keep his name and his share of the family fortune. He would have no difficulty providing for himself and the children he supported.

Damien bought a property in the city. One dream had died, so he began to build another. He'd long wished to own a public house, inspired by the merry, open establishments he'd visited in Westland and Southland when he was a younger man. Was it his imagination, or had travel between the nations been more frequent then? Borders seemed to have--not shut down, but solidified. He was living was a different world than the one he'd been born in. Or perhaps it was his eyes that had changed, and not the world. What was the world to a man but what he saw?

Work on the public house progressed quickly. The tradespeople liked him, and he paid them generously; the two facts were probably related. Damien was certain that his business venture would be a success. There was no other establishment in the city that one could rightfully compare it to. People were already curious about it, making excuses to travel down the narrow side street that lead to its door, leaving no questions about their reason for being there when they lingered by the door to study the progress of the work on the building.

There was only one thing Damien was uncertain about, and that was something which, ultimately, he had no control over: his dark, dour, former squire, Alexander Sable. Unlike Damien, who remained among the living thanks to a pardon, Alex had not been tried for treason, although he had been privately reprimanded. His actions, unlike Damien's, had redeemed him.

If Alex was happy about that, there was no way to tell by looking at him. The man was a cipher at the best of times. After what had happened, he was moreso, but Damien, who knew him well, knew enough to guess that little happiness was hiding beneath that grim exterior. Or perhaps there was a little happiness there, though it might not have been Damien's to find.

Alex had been living with his sister in the women's quarters since their lives had changed. It was a highly unusual arrangement, but no one complained. The fact that no one complained would probably have been taken as an insult by any other man, but Alex did not appear to have noticed. That was one thing Damien admired about him. His complete unconcern with others' opinions.

Sometimes, he was a little too unconcerned. "You can't stay there indefinitely," Damien told him.

Alex regarded him blankly in reply, without a word. A typical Alex response.

Fortunately, Damien didn't need a word to interpret that look. "So, maybe you can. But you shouldn't. You need your own space. So does your sister."

"We don't wish to be separate."

That was probably true. Maybe Alex would have been happiest like that, in his strange, sexless marriage with his sister. As blissful as that might have sounded, Damien didn't think it should be the extent of their lives. Perhaps he was meddling, but he was not above meddling a bit. "You might not, but once my house is ready, I'll be sure to keep a room aside for you. You'll always be welcome there."

He didn't press. One couldn't press Alex. It never worked. Making him a casual offer sometimes had a result. In this case, it was a successful strategy.

Alex showed up at the house one morning. He might have been intrigued, but his expression showed no curiosity. In fact, he appeared more bored than anything else. He had little visible reaction to anything as Damien gave him the tour. As construction was still underway, some of the best features were unfinished, but Damien was already proud of his new residence and business.

He showed Alex the upstairs last, presenting him with the door to his own personal chamber with a flourish of his hand. "Here's the room I've set aside for you. There's not a lot in it, but I know you don't like a lot of things."

"It's fine," said Alex.

"You're welcome to come here whenever you like. Consider it your own room. The public house may not be open yet, but the rooms are habitable."

Alex neither replied nor sniffed nor nodded nor gave any indication that he'd heard, but he must have, for a few days later, he appeared again. Damien made him something to eat and gave him a key. After that, Alex began appearing at random, with no warning. He did not appear often, he did not venture upstairs to his room, and he did not stay long, but something inspired him to keep returning nonetheless. Damien liked to think it was Alex's fondness for him, but he didn't want to flatter himself too much, and he certainly didn't want to ask Alex about it, or he'd risk chasing him away. He was a cagey creature, that Alex.

They did not discuss their new arrangement--if that was what it was--not until the day that the sign arrived.

In retrospect, the sign--and more importantly, the name of the public house painted on it--was perhaps not the best idea he could have had. He frequently found himself drawn to ideas that were not necessarily the best for himself and those around him. Perhaps that was how he dealt with his problems: creating other problems that he could conceivably deal with.

Whatever his weaknesses might have been, Damien did not spend a great deal of time pondering his sign when it arrived. He was mildly pleased by it when he noticed that it had been delivered, then he asked his men to put it up. The name, The Two Traitors, was more of a jest on his part than anything else. A questionable jest, yes. One he thought the court might not appreciate, also yes. Did he consider Alex and how he would take it? If he were being honest he'd have to say, probably yes. Ever since he'd met him, he had harbored a desire to shake Alex up, to free him from the constraints of misery. Sadly, misery was usually a prison that could only be broken from within, but that would not stop him from making the attempt.

When Alex next came to visit, Damien found him standing in the common room. He was not moving, his face the expressionless mask that he so often wore.

"Good afternoon," said Damien.

Alex did not turn toward him, as if he had lost either the power to move or the ability to hear. Damien could have spoken again, or he could have stepped closer, but he did not. He sensed it was better to wait. Alex had that knightly look about him, still but dangerous. Anyone else would have been worried by an armed knight in that aspect, but Damien was a knight as well, if not a real one any longer.

They were the only two people in the house that day. The workers had gone home. The silence was as complete as it was tense.

"What does that mean?" Alex asked at last.

"What?"

His voice was cuttingly precise. "The words on the sign. To what do they refer?"

"The sign--oh, that's right. I thought it might be fitting to name this place after you and me. A little tribute to us both. Do you like it?"

Alex turned toward him. Only his neck and head shifted, while the rest of his body remained still. "I am not a traitor. I was never tried for treason. The Crown sees me as a loyal man."

"True. So you don't need to worry. I'm sure they won't think it has anything to do with you. It'll be our secret."

"I'm not concerned with what they believe about me."

"Then--?"

Alex's neck moved again, smoothly carrying his gaze away from Damien. "I'm leaving."

Damien considered reasoning with him, but in most cases it was best not to try. Alex did what he wanted to do. "You've only just arrived, but I won't keep you if you want to go."

Usually, it was a good idea to let him go. Usually, it was wise not to press. Usually, but not always. This time, Damien had made a miscalculation. "I'll see you soon," he said, to the man's retreating back, tall and narrow, like a dark knife through the light shining in the open doorway. Once the door closed behind that long darkness, Damien headed for the kitchen. When his establishment opened, he planned to cook, but he didn't have a great deal of experience cooking for large groups. It would take a lot of practice, but if there was one thing he was experienced with, it was practice.

He had hardly touched his first pot before he heard a clatter from outside. A loud and alarming clatter that drew his hand back from the pot and had him racing from the kitchen and out into the street.

The new sign lay on the ground. The chains that had held it up had been cut through cleanly, as if by a single stroke. No human should be able to do that. No human had done it. There was only Alex, standing above the fallen sign. He raised his sword and brought it down, splitting the sign in two. He was not human now. His body was oddly illuminated, and the whites of his eyes held a faint glow.

Damien knew what these manifestations meant. Alex had taken the power of Aether into him. That was not something Alex was supposed to do. He should not have been capable of doing it. Though Damien was a severed knight, stripped of his ability to serve as a vessel for the Aetherians, Alex was a half-knight. Half-knights could not bear the power, because they were not made for it. Some quality of their blood or body rejected magic. It sickened them. Alex was already sick, staggering above the sign. Blood drew a bright, broken line from his mouth to the ground. He struck at the sign again and again, each stroke not only destroying it more thoroughly, but also carving deep welts into the earth. In spite of his physical restriction, Alex had managed to direct some of the power into his sword. It must have been agonizing for him. It must have been killing him.

If there had been anyone else in the street previously, they would have fled immediately at the sight of Alex. No one would risk a confrontation with a bright knight, no one except another knight, which was what Damien was.

Damien did not hesitate. He could not answer power with power since he had been severed, and he did not have his sword with him, but he leapt at Alex, into the path of his sword's arc, aiming to grab hold of him and knock him off balance. As he leapt, time seemed to slow, but that was his perception, the moment swelling to give him time in which to act. He felt the air stirred by Alex's blade, soft against his neck, but he was not afraid.

The blade halted before touching him. Damien had known it would. Damien grabbed Alex's shoulders, and Alex staggered back, the brightness fading from his eyes. Alex did not drop his sword--a knight never dropped his sword--but he let his arms fall to his sides.

Damien didn't chide him. He'd be punished enough by the Aetherians for what he'd done. Knights couldn't take on the power without cause, especially not Alex. Hopefully they would not punish him too much. He was not a traitor, as he had pointed out before. He was only a man, with a man's weaknesses. The Aetherians, for all their faults, could recognize that fact.

Alex sagged, but Damien held him up. Alex's mouth was welling with blood now, too much of it spilling from him. "Come on," said Damien, with a smile, as if such things happened every day. "Let's get you inside."

Fortunately, the bleeding had reached its apex and soon passed it, and by the time they'd made it to Alex's room, it had all but stopped flowing. Alex, as grave and scornful of foolishness as he was, could be as foolish as any other. The magic must have broken something inside him. All the strength had gone out of him, and Damien had to help him into bed. "You could have died, you ass," said Damien. Alex's eyes were closed. He might not have been conscious to hear Damien's words.

Damien pulled a blanket over Alex's prone form, then started as he drew himself up and saw an ice-white figure standing in the doorway, watching him with black eyes. After all this time, he had never grown used to the sudden appearance of Aetherians. It took him a moment to recover. "John. Thank you for coming."

John Good was the only Aetherian Damien knew who didn't make his flesh crawl. When John was in a room with you, he did not make you think that half of him must have been standing in another world. He was fully present, wherever he was. John inclined his head. He stepped into the room and glanced at Alex, more as a formality than because he needed to examine Alex visually. "He will recover," said the Aetherian. "I felt that--quite an ugly tremor. If you'd like, I will explain it to any others who might come."

"I would appreciate that." The thought of a lot of Aetherians descending on his home did not appeal to Damien in the least. He'd had enough trouble with them in the past. He had no desire to draw their attention once more.

John inclined his head again in a gesture that was an exact replica of the earlier one. He did not vanish into the air yet, but remained, giving Alex another needless glance. "He is sick," said John.

This was no surprise to Damien. "I know."

"A half-knight taking on Aether will kill him or those around him. You must not let this happen."

"He lost something important to him," Damien explained.

"I understand." John Good was the most human Aetherian Damien had ever known, not that that made him seem almost human, but he was easier to read than the others of his kind. "If he is too ill--" he said, letting the phrase end meaningfully, suggesting what might happen.

"I won't let them take him. I'd kill him first."

John's life among humans had led him to a greater understanding of them, or a greater acceptance for the fact that they were passionate and illogical. "Then that is what you should do, if this happens again, but take care. He could easily injure you."

"He'd never harm me," said Damien, but John Good, having said all he needed to say, had disappeared. Damien was alone with Alex again. Alex was most likely beyond hearing, so it was safe for Damien to add, "He's my squire."

***


John Good was as good as his word. He must have spoken to the other Aetherians, for no more of them appeared. The front of the house was repaired, without comment, by the workers. Alex had not only destroyed the sign. He had also managed to drive deep welts into the exterior walls before Damien had arrived to stop him. The craftsmen's cautious avoidance of the subject reminded Damien once again that, as a knight, he was set apart from the rest of society. Men like those would never truly see him as one of them, even though the knights no longer saw him as one of their own. What was he, then? Only himself.

His only equal now was Alexander Sable, who had not awakened with the passing of days. No, more than likely, Alex's sister was Damien's equal too. She came often to visit her brother. More than once, she brought Princess Margot with her. Alex and Alena were the princess' knights, sworn to protect her. Alena and Margot sat at Alex's bedside, speaking quietly to him, although he could not reply to them. Damien left them in peace.

Sir Alena was tall and straight like her brother, if somewhat less somber. Damien smiled to think that there they were, every kind of misfit knight, gathered in one house. The ex-knight, no longer what he had once been; the half-knight, who had never been everything he'd been meant to be; and the honorary knight, the first female knight, who most likely shared her brother's difficulty with magic and so would never be made even half a knight.

Damien was beginning to believe that odd knights were better. A little more human, a little more trouble. There were so few knights of their questionable caliber left now, he didn't know what he'd do if he lost one of them. He would have been worried about Alex after the first few days of his sleep, but John Good had said Alex would be fine. Damien had to believe that was the truth.

The honest Aetherian came through again. On the evening of the seventh day, Alex woke with a scream that filled the house and nearly sent Damien out of his skin. Damien dropped the plate he was holding, hardly noticing as it shattered on the floor. Alex was still screaming as Damien ran up the stairs and into his room.

Alex was writhing beneath the blankets, his eyes wide, staring unfocused as if sightless. Damien pulled the blankets off of him and held him down, as gently as he could. "Calm down. Just calm down. You're with me, Alex. I won't leave you."

Was it that Alex couldn't see or hear, or was he too delirious to understand where he was and what was happening? In any case, Damien's words had no effect on him, and he seemed unable to do anything but thrash and scream some more. Damien was patient. He held on, and his patience was rewarded. Alex eventually regained his power of speech, though he used it to rave. "My skin's turning black," he muttered. "It feels so thick. It's coming apart."

His skin was its usual healthy brown. "Your skin's not black. It's fine. You're fine. Calm down. I'm here. I won't let anything happen to you."

Alex's voice changed. It rose in pitch, became a question. "James? James, where are you? Are you there?"

Some of the strength went out of Damien's arms. He had never heard Alex's voice so plaintive or so soft. He didn't answer that question, because it was a question no one could answer now. It was not meant for him. He kept holding Alex still until the fight faded from him and he lay back, his head falling to the pillow. "My skin," he murmured.

"It's the same as ever," said Damien, who did not understand why Alex was worried about it, assuming it must be his delirium speaking.

"James, please," said Alex.

"James isn't here," said Damien. The words stung his throat. He wished he didn't have to say them. He would have reunited Alex with his friend if he could, but no one could do that. "Sleep now." Somehow, Alex listened to him this time. He felt the tension fade from Alex's body as Alex closed his eyes.

Damien began to pull away, to leave him to sleep in peace, but as soon as he started to draw back, Alex's hands came up, gripping his arms. There was power in Alex's hands. That was not a grip to be evaded lightly.

"Stay," said Alex. "Don't leave me."

"I'll stay." Damien didn't have a choice, but he didn't want a choice. He would have stayed in any case. He lay down in the bed beside Alex. Only then did Alex release his grip and lie still. The bed was big enough for the both of them, and Damien found close quarters no trial, so he did not feel uncomfortable, only worried. Alex usually shied away from physical contact. He wasn't acting like himself. Damien lay facing him. Alex's eyes were still closed.

Alex could have died. Damien hadn't realized, perhaps because Alex was usually so unlikely to express himself, that his grief was so virulent. Of course, he had known Alex was in pain, but he had not understood that Alex was near madness, or that he was close to losing his sense of self-preservation.

That foolish sign. What a terrible idea it had been on his part. He could be so selfish, always intent on having his jokes. The sign hadn't been meant to cause any harm, yet it had upset Alex so much. Damien could only hope that in some way, it was better like this, to have the grief out instead of festering inside him. Damien reached out and touched Alex's forehead, lightly, to test whether he was awake.

He was, or he was so restless that that the slight touch was enough to wake him. His eyes were able to focus this time, and Damien had the sense that Alex knew who he was. This was confirmed when he spoke. "Damien," he said.

"That's right."

"He's gone," said Alex.

"Yes." Neither of them said the name James again.

Alex changed the subject to that of his other primary concern. "The princess. How is she?"

"Worried about you."

"I'm fine." The sad thing was, Alex's tone was completely sincere. Amazingly, his condition passed as "fine" for him.

Damien offered no argument. "Of course you are. I've made sure of that."

It was then that Alex finally paid attention to the fact that Damien was lying in bed with him. "This isn't how you should look after someone who's ill," he said.

Damien decided not to explain that Alex himself was the reason for his presence there. "Is that so? Tragically, I have very little medical training." He sat up. "I won't continue to disturb your recovery."

"It doesn't matter to me."

Damien asked himself what this must mean. He suspected that Alex was asking him to stay, as extraordinary as that idea was. "It doesn't matter to me, either." Damien decided to go with his instincts. If Alex really wanted him to go, he could kick him out of bed easily enough. He lay down beside Alex again.

Alex was watching him suspiciously, possibly waiting to see what he would do next. Damien hated to disappoint him, but he did nothing at all. No, that wasn't entirely true. He gave Alex a fond look, then he closed his eyes.

The bed was not small, but it was small enough that Damien could sense the tension in Alex's body, which was studiedly immobile. Damien waited for some time, matching Alex's motionlessness, if not his tension. He didn't open his eyes again until Alex had relaxed and Damien heard his breathing shift into the softer rhythm of sleep. Then he dared a peek. He saw that Alex's face, too, had softened in sleep. Damien slid his arm gently around Alex's waist. He wondered if Alex would wake up and hit him in the face.

If Alex was awakened by the touch, he fortunately decided not to hit anyone, and he gave no sign that he had returned to consciousness, so Damien was never quite sure. He let his hand rest on Alex's back, reassured by the warmth of Alex's body, undeniably alive, as it should be. What would Damien do without him? Oh, he would carry on somehow, to be sure, but he wouldn't enjoy it, and why should he have to? Traitors were supposed to stick together, the unofficial ones as well as those who had been recognized by the law.

Don't give up on me, Sable. We're the only ones left.

***


The replacement sign was even better than the original. When having it remade, Damien had thought to add two dangling nooses hanging from the bottom, for the benefit of those who couldn't read, and also to underscore his basic point: good traitors couldn't be kept down.

"Now it's even worse," Alex informed him, striding through the door one day, shortly after the new sign was hung. Once he had recovered, he had returned to his sister in the women's quarters. This was the first time Damien had seen him since then.

"Hello to you too, Alex," said Damien, glancing up from the table he was polishing.

"I should cut those ropes down," said Alex.

"But you won't," Damien calmly replied.

"Why don't you think so?" asked Alex.

"Because you love my sign."

"I do not."

"Oh, you do. Very secretly, but I know it's true."

Alex sighed. "You'll see how true that is when I cut them down."

"I suppose I will," Damien said agreeably. "I look forward to it."

Alex made no move to attack the sign again. He began to walk in the opposite direction, crossing the common room floor with broad strides. Damien paused in his polishing. "Going up to your room?"

Alex had already made it to the stairs. He spared Damien a glance over his shoulder. "Isn't that obvious?"

"It was simply a pleasantry," said Damien.

"You know I don't care for those."

"I did once hear something about that," Damien admitted as Alex ascended the stairs and disappeared down the hall without offering a single pleasant word of his own. Damien shook his head. He probably never would get Alex to care for pleasantries. Once he'd thought he might manage to tame his former squire, but he'd been wrong. Happily, he was right about the sign. Alex never did get around to knocking down the new one, for which Damien was always grateful.
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