“Never have I ever had sex,” says Jester, an easy opener, a low blow – and Caleb, along with the rest of them bar Caduceus, drinks.
Bren’s first fumblings are with Astrid, in their second year at the academy, and he still remembers it like a half-dream, hazy and soft despite his perfect memory.
She’s handsome enough to make him blush all the way down to the copper dusting of hair trailing over his navel, and she laughs at the blooming pink because she knows it. He kisses her to stop the giggling, salvage his wounded pride, and she kisses back, hard enough to clack their teeth together – hard enough to make him shiver.
Usually, he shies from touch, avoids it where possible, but Astrid is an exception – as she is exceptional in all else, in intellect and confidence and looks and academics. An exceptional young woman, her teachers call her, and Bren cannot help but agree.
When he touches her, hesitantly, fingers trembling against bare skin, she kisses him again, a hand wound in the back of his hair for leverage. “No,” she whispers in Zemnian, confident, proud, stunning. “Not like that.” She takes his hand in hers, places it against her own hip and holds it there. “Like you mean it. Touch me like you mean it, Bren.”
He hesitates – then slides his hand upwards, higher, higher, thumb trailing over her stomach and fingers against her ribs, as confident as he can manage. When she hums, emboldened, he dips his head to press kisses against the hollow of her throat, tasting her quiet groans against his lips.
In his memory, the rest of the evening is flashes, and little more. Her mouth on his neck, his hands on her breasts, the giddy teenage excitement of her nipples against his palms… She pulls his hair, he grinds against her thigh, and does as she commands – touches her like he means it. His fingers inside her, hesitant and fumbling; his fingers out of her, her hands on him, guiding him in; her mouth hungry on his shoulder and neck as they both pant and sweat into the dark.
Of the whole heat-soaked experience, it is her hands he remembers after most clearly, where they fall when he is spent and shaky, sweat-slicked. One pressed against his thigh, petting him as he pants against the hollow of her throat, trembling, coltish; one slipped between the place their stomachs meet, brand-hot between them, knuckles digging bruises into his skin as her fingers move in frantic, starving circles.
“Never have I ever… had a threesome,” says Caduceus, thoughtfully, balancing his half-drunk cup of tea on his knee. Even the social obligation of a game of Truth Or Dare is not, apparently, enough to convince the firbolg touch alcohol again.
“One,” snaps Nott, indignantly, drunkenly – she’s been drinking between questions, the pace of the drinks the game doles out too slow for her tastes – as Fjord drinks, Beau drinks, “you’re not even drinking! That’s tea! You can’t ask questions if you’re not drinking! And two, I thought you said you were some- virgin forest hermit. How do you even know what threesomes are?! How do you even know about sex-”
It’s Astrid that suggests they invite Eodwulf to bed with them. He is, after all, handsome, in the gangling sort of way that is the only way teenage boys can be handsome. Before they left the academy for Magister Ikithon’s estate, he was somewhat popular amongst the women of their class, and her nor Brenn have heard any complaints from any of the women involved in those dalliances. He’s an obvious choice – really, the only obvious choice, given the seclusion of Magister Ikithon’s .
Naïvely, Bren assumes she suggests it because she wishes to be between them, or perhaps at the centre of their attention.
Instead, the first thing thing Astrid does – when they have all piled into their room, squished close together on a single, small bed and grinning nervously, giddy with the adolescent excitement of something deviant – is tell the two of them she wants to see them kiss.
Bren half-expects Eodwulf to object, half-expects himself to object, but instead… there is a hand on his cheek, sliding slow round the curve of his skull and through the copper of his hair to cup the back of his head- and Edowulf’s eyes meeting his- and then the distance between them is closing and gone- there are lips on his- and-
When they pull apart, Eodwulf is grinning, looking to Astrid for the approval of a job well done and proof of her pleasure – but Bren, Bren is dazed, panting, lips half-parted and cock half-hard, shocked silly by the faint rasp of stubble against his skin.
He turns to look at Astrid, squirming, uncertain, and the warm liquid-brown of her eyes belies the razor’s edge of intelligence that lurks behind. She is clever, his Astrid, his exceptional woman.
As I thought, her eyes say, and the knowledge that he has been used in her experiment is both unsettling and- arousing. That she knows him so well, that she would engineer this on a hunch, that she would indulge him in this… He doesn’t know what to say. Doesn’t know what to think.
After such thoughtfulness, however, he would not want disappoint.
This time, it is Bren that crosses the distance between them, leaning in to catch Eodwulf’s lips with his own. It’s strange kissing another, after getting so used to Astrid’s mouth, Astrid’s preferences, Astrid’s habits. But Bren has always been a quick learner – though he doubts his parents and teachers would approve of this particular application of his intellect – and it doesn’t take him long to work out what Eodwulf likes.
Eodwulf, for his part, learns quickly too. Bren’s unsure whether it’s a lucky guess, or whether Astrid tipped him off beforehand, but there’s a hand in his hair, another on the back of his neck, and he melts. It’s so easy, leaning into the touch, letting the faint prickle in his scalp ground him against the overwhelming dizziness of palm-to-flesh contact with unfamiliar skin.
Somewhere to their left, Astrid gasps. Bren doesn’t see why, his eyelids fluttered shut as he nips at Eodwulf’s full bottom lip, but he can guess. He knows her intimately, now, knows near all the noises she makes in bed and in pleasure.
He knows this one well.
When they pull away – both panting, this time, Bren from the heavy ache of his arousal, Eodwulf from the kiss-bitten mess that has been made of his mouth – it is to the sight of Astrid, still watching them, one frantic hand disappeared below the waist of her underwear and a hungry smile curving at her lips.
“Never have I ever… slept with someone over twice my age,” says Fjord, looking flushed in the low light of the campfire. He’s been drinking since before they began this game, has started in on the hard liquor at Nott’s encouragement – and seems to be feeling the effects, if the way he’s starting to slur is any indication.
Nott clutches her flask to her chest like she’s worried someone’s going to steal it, and waits a solid thirty seconds after the question to drink, just so no one confuses her desire for alcohol with an admission of sordid sexual secrets.
Beau drinks, graciously accepts a high-five from Jester, and then starts arguing about fairness, because goblins have shorter lifespans, “so it’s way easier for you to have not- no, no, it totally is, Nott, don’t bullshit me-”
Caleb, near-unnoticed amidst the bickering, drinks.
Bren counts. It’s what he does.
It’s how he knows what time it is, always, the tick-tock of the seconds in the back of his head beyond even habit now. It’s how he knows the number cracks on the ceiling of his room in Magister Ikithon’s mansion, the number of footsteps between his bed and the morning assembly point in the yard, the number of knots in the wood of Magister Ikithon’s desk.
The patterns of blows and pauses of Magister Ikithon’s switch, when he is being beaten for his endless, constant mistakes.
The final strike falls across the tender mess that has been made of the crease between thigh and arse, and all is still. He counts, silent, stifling his whimpers, the seconds between the blow and his dismissal. Six, seven, eight-
It’s strange, because Magister Ikithon usually keeps to schedule – it’s one of the things Caleb likes best about him, his regularity and consistency – and dismisses him ten seconds afterwards. Thirteen, if the beating has been particularly protracted, and Magister Ikithon is winded. But here he is, counting twenty, twenty-one, still bent over with the blood trickling down his thighs.
“…Magister?” he asks, quiet, hesitant - and then gasps, sobs, as the switch raps neatly against a bloody welt on one thigh. “Sorry, Magister! Sorry.”
Magister Ikithon is silent, considering, and Bren prays he does not decide on more punishment for the indiscretion. Five blows for the noise of pain, he thinks, and then another five, perhaps ten, for being so disobedient as to talk, and he knows if he takes fifteen on top of the damage already then he won’t be able to sit for a full three days-
He is still counting, lips pressed into a tight line of silence to prevent further lapses – forty-five, forty-six – when the Magister finally speaks again.
“Press your thighs together, boy,” Ikithon says.
Without really knowing why, Bren’s blood runs cold.
“Magister, what-” he asks – because he has no script for this, has no count for this – and then cries out high and shocked when the switch hits him again. This time the strike is full-strength; a sharp whip-whistle as the thin length of birch flicks through the air, and a line of fire as it hits, with unerring accuracy, an already-open welt.
“Thighs together!” orders Magister Ikithon, again, sharper but not louder. The Magister never raises his voice. Never needs to.
This time, Bren does not question, does not argue – he swallows his sobs, presses his thighs together, does as he’s told. Takes his orders, and obeys.
There is a moment, a single count, where Bren does not understand. Where he is left standing, cold and shaking and stripped waist-down over the Magister’s desk, thighs clenched, with only his own confusion and his counting.
Then there are hands on his hips, pinning him in place to the desk, and pressure against the whipped-raw meat of his arse. Somewhere inside his own skull, he hears his heartbeat, heavy and too-fast and not quite loud enough to drown out the low panting above his head and his own shaky gasps.
His mind, slow through the pain but still counting, half-registers what the sensation between his legs is – the push-pull against his inner thighs, slicked by his own drying-tacky blood from the beating. The other half is caught on the hands, their touch, bare skin against bare skin and the itch-crawl of it down to his bones; but the first half works slow, count by count, and realises what this is. Realises what his teacher is doing.
And because Bren is a good student – a good soldier – he says nothing, and lets Magister Ikithon do as he pleases, and counts.
Three hundred and forty six, oh Gott, three hundred and forty seven, oh Gott-
It is not over when Magister Ikithon finishes, sticky and unpleasant between his thighs. It is not over when Bren feels it trickle down his thighs, cool compared to the blood, all the more nauseating for it. It is not over when Magister Ikithon pulls away with a satisfied sigh.
It is only over when there is the scrape of a chair behind him, and the shuffling of papers, and Magister Ikithon says, “Dismissed,” with a disinterest that borders on disapproval.
Bren pulls up his trousers to cover the blood, and the bruise-welts, and his teacher’s cooling spend. He bows unsteadily, eyes on the floor and shoulders hunched to hide his shaking, and leaves without a word.
He never tells Astrid or Eodwulf about it; is unsure why his skin crawls with shame-horror at the mere thought of bringing it up. Magister Ikithon did not forbid him from mentioning it, after all, not explicitly. But he keeps his silence, and his teacher’s secret, and lets the hands on his hips join his nightmares alongside the press of crystals through neatly-stitched flesh.
Afterwards he wonders, sometimes, whether Trent ever did it to them, too; whether he molested them all, and correctly assumed the trauma-shame-loyalty would keep them quiet, or whether Caleb was special. He’s not sure which option is worse, honestly.
A part of him feels less alone at the thought that Trent did the same to them all, though, and he hates it. Hates the monstrous selfishness of it with the same cold, dispassionate loathing he hates the rest of himself with.
“Never have I ever been tied up in bed,” says Jester, gleeful, and Caleb drinks.
“Never have I ever had to safeword out of sex,” says Beau, and Caleb drinks.
“Never have I ever,” says Fjord, and hiccups, flushing dark over the high prominence of his cheekbones, down the length of his throat and across his collarbones, very drunk now, “never have I- taken it up the ass.” Jester whoops gleefully and grins, all fangs and suggestive eyebrows. Caleb drinks.
“Never have I ever… fuck, had sex for money? I dunno, I’m running out of ideas over here,” slurs Nott, and Caleb drinks, and drinks, and drinks.
The evening before their final test on resisting interrogation, in their room, Eodwulf – worrying at the scars along his arms, pink and months-old – says, “What do you think he’s going to throw at us for the finale, then?”
They speak Zemnian in private. Ikithon discourages them from from speaking it in front of him, or in public; but in the small quiet of their room, in this private space between the three of them, they speak their mother tongue.
“Something new, probably. Or worse than he’s done before.” Astrid has her own scars, even more fresh, still healing under the clean bandages on her upper arms. Six new crystals glitter under her skin there, a badge of pride and of Ikithon’s approval, grating raw against her nerves as her body struggles to adapt and toughen around them. “Or everything he’s done before, all at once, or for longer than before, or…” She shrugs one shoulder. “We will know soon enough. No use in worrying, Eodwulf. Revise, then rest, and whatever happens will happen. We will survive, regardless.”
Eodwulf frowns. “You’re probably right. He wants to test us, to make us stronger. It makes sense he’d measure how much we’ve improved, compared to… at first.” He sighs, drags a hand over the buzzed-short fuzz of his hair, twitchy with nerves. “God. God. I just want it over and done with, you know? This is gonna be so fucked. We’re gonna be so fucked.”
“Don’t be stupid, Wulf,” says Bren, absently, from his place by Astrid’s side, slumped against her arm and ribs, sprawled out like a lazy cat. He doesn’t even raise his eyes from his notes, fussing over them in last-minute revision before lights-out. “What use are dead soldiers to Magister Ikithon? To the Empire? The Magister has never given us anything we cannot handle before. We will pass through the flames, and emerge like- phoenixes. Like tempered steel. Stronger. This is what we have been working towards, remember. We are… the return on his investment of time and teaching. He will not set us something we are destined to fail.”
He smiles up at Astrid as he says it, leans into the touch of her hand against his shorn scalp as she works her palm over the fuzz of it. She says nothing in return, but instead lets her hand wander down his neck, tracing the pads of her fingers over the tender scars on the pale, freckled skin of his upper shoulder.
Astrid, as it turns out, is the wisest of them all with her careful silence.
Magister Ikithon’s test, as it turns out, is not something Bren can handle.
He manages all of thirty seconds – chained to the floor by his ankles and wrists, his skin crawling with the touch of the charmed man atop him – before he starts howling. Even at the best of times, touch does not agree with him; he shies away from even Astrid and Eodwulf, occasionally, unable to stand the feel of their hands against his skin despite the clothing separating them.
And this? This is absolutely not the best of times.
“Stop!” he begs, the word torn from his throat involuntarily in a burst of panic-terror, the horror of it nearly choking him. He fights against the chains, against the hands shoving his face down into the flagstones and hauling his hips up, against the sharp stab of pain; against the knowledge, pressed somewhere deep in the back of his mind by animal fear, that he is disappointing his teacher.. “Magister, Magister please-”
Magister Ikithon is in the corner, watching, silent and stone-faced, and last night Bren had been so sure he would never set his students a task they could not handle, but- “It is, this is, no, no-” He chokes his own weakness, swallowing down his sobs and instead howling, screaming, anything to keep from crying like a child – a small, lost child, whose father is watching from the corner of the room with dead, dispassionate, disappointed eyes. “Bitte, bitte, hör auf- I cannot, stop, stop this, ich kann nicht, stop-!”
But Magister Ikithon does not stop the lesson, and the charmed man does not stop what he is doing to Bren, and everything after that blurs hazy into panic and sobbing and fear.
When it is over, and he is collapsed on the floor, shaking so hard he feels nausea-feverish and dizzy, Magister Ikithon says softly, “I expect excellence from my students. Especially from you, Bren. I am… disappointed.”
He heaves a sigh, waves a hand – the sobbing of the traitor, crawled away into a corner once the spell ended, cuts off. The man is knocked unconscious with a thought, with a casual and easy display of power and control from his teacher that only highlights Bren’s own failure that much more starkly. “I will see you here at the same time tomorrow, for your resit. I expect you to spend the time between now and then considering an appropriate punishment for such a pathetic display, and reflecting on your performance, so that you will not disappoint me next time.”
“Y-yes, Magister Ikithon,” chokes out Bren, through his raw throat and trembling and the sinking failure-guilt curdling his guts. “S-sorry, Magister Ikithon.”
“Dismissed,” says Magister Ikithon, in the same voice he had used after laying hands on Bren’s hips all those months ago – and as Bren drags himself unsteady and sick out of the chamber he knows there will be a new set of hands to join his nightmares tonight.
Later, after the fire and the madness and the asylum, when he is penniless and alone on the streets, hungry and cold and with nothing but his clothes and a magical amulet, he is… in a perverse, loathsome kind of way, almost grateful for the lesson. He hates knowing Ikithon was right, to force that upon them, to desensitise them to it. But the lesson makes it easier to tolerate the grasping hands, the lack of care, the aches and bruises after, for the handful of coppers he needs to eat. His time with Ikithon was worse than this, he tells himself, as he lets his brain drift loose from his body until the night’s passing stranger is done with him. That was worse. This is nothing.
“Wow, Caleb!” says Jester, brightly, giggling and a little tipsy – she’s been drinking milk, mostly, but mixed with a little of something sweet and syrupy and unexpectedly strong that they picked up a bottle of a few towns back. It’s enough to make her even more loose-tongued than usual, and flushed faint purple over her nose and cheeks. “I never knew you were so adventurous.”
Caleb says nothing, and drinks, because that seems like the easiest way to dispel the hands he is starting to feel against his skin.
When Caleb and Astrid first started sleeping together, they were- not children, certainly, but young. Naïve. Soft. They thought that love and sex were gentle things, easy things; soft touches in the dark, an exploration, the inch-or-less of space between sweat-slicked skin as they moved together in muffled quiet. It was a sweet fantasy, innocent and stupid – but a fantasy nonetheless.
By the end of their training, they are adults, and know better. By the end of their training, things have escalated, just a little.
Neither of them feel pain any more. Or rather, they do, but it is a distant thing, familiar, a distraction they have been taught to block out. Gentleness, they feel even less, numbed by scars and by the distance they have engineered between their minds and bodies to shield themselves from their training.
Sex without violence, Astrid and Bren discover, is something they can barely feel at all.
So tonight, Astrid chokes him as she rides him, presses down on his throat with both hands as his hips buck and his vision pulses black-red-black. Her nails draw blood against his throat, and it is still nothing, still such kindness and care compared to what they have experienced in the last year.
Not quite hard enough to truly hurt, not for him – but hard enough to feel.
Bren’s own fingers dig deep, purple bruises into her hips, threaten to re-split the welts across her arse and thighs from a recent punishment. The feel of scabs against his nails is a familiar one, both from her and from the human filth they use for training, and it does little to distract him from the matter at hand. He grips tighter, bucks up into her, gasps as he feels skin split and blood drip hot over his knuckles.
“Harder,” he wheezes, with his last exhale of breath. “Harder.”
Just feeling is not enough now, not nearly enough. Pain is an old friend, the metric by which he measures his life, his aliveness. Even if he feels, without pain, he cannot be sure he truly lives.
Astrid obliges him in this, just as he obliges her in all she asks of him – bears down harder, his trachea fit snug into the thin space of her hand between thumb and forefinger. He turns dizzy with it, head spinning as his heart thumps uselessly against the finger over his carotid artery, lips gone static-numb and throat working furiously below her hand as she rocks her hips against his with fever-pitch intensity. It is perfect, it is beautiful, heady and filthy and fucked-up, and it is not enough.
It’s never enough, for him. There is something broken in him, something shattered, and no matter how hard she holds him, he cannot keep himself together.
He wonders how much harder she would have to squeeze, how much blood she would have to draw, how many bones she would have to break before her grip cut through the hundreds of overlapping, grasping hands in his nightmares and actually touch the skin. Before he actually felt her touch, felt the pain, felt anything other than hollow, echoing devotion in his head and the ringing of a feral frenzy in his heart.
“Never have I ever,” says Caduceus – and even from across the campfire, Caleb can feel those odd, pale eyes on him, perceptive, incisive, like butterfly-on-a-board needles against the back of his neck, “had sex that I didn’t want.”
Fjord hesitates, and drinks. Beau raises her glass and- doesn’t drink, seems to think better of it, but it’s a near thing. Nott is half-passed out, slumped against Jester and snoring in faint, grunting hitches with her flask clutched tight to her chest.
Caleb starts draining the bottle of spirits he’s been holding, because there’s not enough liquor in the world to make that question easy to bear.
There’s more eyes on him now than just Caduceus’ – and of course there are, because everyone knows about Avantika, but Caleb? Caleb is a mystery. Caleb is interesting. Caleb is a mess of shattered pieces they all seem so damn intent on sticking their hands in.
The world is spinning. He feels sick. The bottle is not empty yet.
“…Oh,” breathes Beau, drink-slow to the obvious conclusion but still sharp as the crack of a whip. “Oh, shit.”
His insides curdle.
So he drinks in another long, wretched, drowning swallow until the bottle is empty, and then gets to his feet. “I- am going to sleep now,” he says, with an authority and a confidence he does not feel, and stumbles away from the ring of staring eyes and silent faces. He throws up into the bushes a ways beyond the firelight until his throat and nose are burning, until the perfectly-preserved memories lurking behind his eyes are blunted and dulled, until there is nothing left inside and he is perfectly, hideously empty.
The hands, though? The hands stay.