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That Which Nourishes Me Destroys Me

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"Sit still, Wasp," said Barrett, patient and kind as always. It made Kit want to lash out - as always. But he wanted the portrait more. He wanted that tangible proof of Barrett's love, of his care and his talent, that it was being spent on him, Christopher Marlowe, poor boy that he was, son of a shoemaker, charity case to be pitied... He twitched again.

Barrett sat back from his easel, charcoal stick drooping from his fingers and sighed. Kit stared at him and bared his teeth. It might have been called a smile in some dim tavern, but here, in the golden afternoon and comfort of Barrett's Cambridge rooms, it was too sharp, a grimace, as much a challenge as picking up a sword. Come and fight me, it might have said, but Kit knew Barrett would never do that, would never give him the satisfaction, and that he might hate that about him, just as much as he loved him.

Instead, Barrett walked over, his gait easy, his fingers black with charcoal, and made as if to adjust Kit's pose, his hand brushing a wayward lock of hair back, away from Kit's forehead, a delicate finger tracing Kit's cheekbone, almost tickling. Kit found himself looking up, almost involuntarily, to see Barrett's beloved features limned in light from the window like a Medieval halo on a plaster saint. The bitter irony of that almost made Kit forget the beautiful picture he made with his neck extended, staring up soulfully into Barrett's eyes. He wondered if Barrett had left that charcoal on his skin, black and gritty, a physical manifestation of the marks he had left on Kit's very soul. Not that Kit would have it any other way.

"It's not working," said Barrett softly, with regret, his words like stabbing poniards, "My darling Wasp, you are beyond my poor art. You are as changeable as quicksilver, and as hard to capture."

"But you promised," said Kit, hearing the whine in his voice and hating it. "You promised you would make me immortal, captured forever in canvas and oil. You promised, my King - a portrait by the great Barrett Emerson, for my delight and yours. In recompense for damning us both."

He meant that last as a flippant remark, just another witticism, but it came out too sharp, too hard. Barrett didn't wince, but Kit felt it all the same. So he reached forward and wrapped his arms around the man's middle, by way of recompense, burying his nose in the slightly softened belly. May unto September the pair of them might be, but that sort of thing didn't matter to Kit, and it never would, he hoped. But that didn't mean he had no Achilles heel of his own - he could never stop needling, constantly testing Barrett's love, his resolve, and Kit suspected that he always would. Fire and water, the pair of them were, in uneasy balance, and Kit feared the day Barrett's patience would run out, even as he thrilled to the danger in it.

Because he was jealous, Kit could admit it, in the privacy of his own mind. He was hardly the first poor boy Barrett had elevated to that coveted place by his side, he had only Barrett's protestations that he was special, that he was different, that things mattered this time. He seethed with petty envy for all those others before him, so wide-eyed, believing all the sweet blandishments that were poured into their naive and innocent ears, and so damning themselves for some momentary pleasures. He, Christopher bloody Marlowe refused to be one of them. He would be cynical, and he would be bitter, and he would damn himself for real love, at the very least, the deepest and most painful of its kind. Even as he destroyed it with his doubts.

After all, he was a man now. He had not long turned one-and-twenty, for God's sake, no longer could he truly blame the stupidity of youth. A man at last, and recruited not long since to 'important government work', a euphemism of the most egregious kind. Recruited to bloody murder and petty vengeance, more like. He was witness to criminality, venality and blatent hypocrisy at every turn - he should be revelling in it. The world proving so true to his misanthropic nature. His purse was the heavier for it, at least.

Barratt hated his work for the Queen's intelligencers. He thought it beneath artists such as themselves. He thought wading through the gore and violence was something that would coarsen Kit's senses, that would befoul his muse. Kit could not, hand on heart, say that he was wrong, but what he knew for certain was that it fed something in him, some bent for self-destruction, perhaps. All Kit knew was that he never felt more alive as when his life was balanced upon a knife's point. Surely his King could understand that?

"I will not abandon you," said Barratt, and bent to kiss the top of Kit's head, "Or my promise. But you shall sit for me another day, Wasp, one when you are more able to embody the stillness of the Greek statues, along with their perfect form."

"Perfect, am I?" said Kit, his impish humour restored at the compliment, "Shall I instead sit upon you, instead of for you, and show the duty a vassal should unto his liege?" He leered up at his dear King, and licked his teeth lasciviously. Barratt laughed.

"A liege should show largesse towards their favourites, should they not? I have a present for you," he said, his voice soft and impossibly fond.

He drew Kit to his feet, and tugged him lightly towards the closet in the corner of the bedroom. Kit allowed himself to be drawn because simple gestures of the like caused his throat to close and his chest to hurt. It was stupid, really, to lose his facile tongue in the face of such easy affection, but... there it was. At least he lost his poisonous wit at the same time.

Barratt reached into the closet and almost reverently drew out one of the finest doublets Kit had ever seen. It was made of the blackest velvet, and accented in gold thread, it smelled of cloves, no doubt used to preserve the fabric, but adding to the exotic appeal. It was far finer than anything he had ever worn before in his life. Kit was paid well for his intelligence work, especially compared to his pittance of a scholarship, but he knew full well he could never afford a doublet of this quality - not least forgetting that velvet was the province of the nobility, by sumptuary law, and that black was the most expensive dye. It was nearly too much for Kit. He wanted to run from the size of this gesture, from the heavy meaning it no doubt conveyed, but his legs were locked and trembling. Barratt either didn't notice or was kindly ignoring his overreaction while Kit could barely catch his breath - he'd wanted tangible proof of Barratt's love, had he not? And to think he'd wanted a paltry painting, a fragile thing of oil and canvas, when Barratt had already spent so much of himself on Kit. It was ridiculous. Kit was ridiculous.

"You shouldn't," he breathed finally, unable to raise his voice above an awed whisper, "I'm not..."

He trailed off - not what? Not worthy? Not worth it? The great man that Kit Marlowe aspired to be wouldn't say that. The bitter cynical thing his bullies and cronies had taught him to be wouldn't say that either. What was wrong with him? His thoughts swirled like disturbed birds.

But Barratt wasn't paying attention to Kit's confusion, instead he was drawing the doublet up and across his shoulders, caressing the fabric, smoothing the lawn collar of Kit's shirt. His palm cupped Kit's chin, caressing him too, before brushing the sleeve of the doublet across his lips, the smooth velvet catching and alternately soothing his skin. His lips tingled.

"Beautiful," Barratt sighed, his eyes bright with emotion, "The colours against your skin... I knew that this was how I must paint you." He fingered the gold thread. "Standing in the shadow and in the light."

"With my arms folded, I suppose, to hide my secrets?" said Kit, at last, his sarcasm shaky but intact.

Barratt looked startled. "If you like."

Kit snorted, at the absurdity of it all, his only recourse in the face of all this unwelcome emotion. He lifted his hand and tangled his fingers with Barratt's, the velvet soft between them. Such a tangible evidence of Barratt's love. Black and gold, their virtues and their vices, all embodied.

"You will paint me as you see me, my King," said Kit, at last, "And no-one could ask more."

Although, Kit could not help but muse, what did it say of them that there was so much more black than gold? Did that matter? Had Barratt thought of that when he commissioned his gift? Did it sum up the contents of their souls? Did it hint at that damnation Kit was so fond of joking about? In the face of such a reality, did anything else hold an ounce of importance? Not velvet or jewels. Not paint or canvas. Not even words. Especially not words, perhaps. And yet Kit must try - for his only immortality, it seemed, would be what he left in this world, and words were his trade. He would complete his translation of Ovid's Amores, and he'd dust off his Dido and finish her at last. Love would destroy him, even as it saved him, but he'd be damned if he didn't make life difficult for both of them first.

He was Christopher bloody Marlowe. To forget him would be the greater sin.