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strike us like matches

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It’s still about two weeks’ travel to the prison—two weeks until they see any action, two weeks until they get the reinforcements they need—and all that travel will be across desert. If there was ever any one thing that was good about Espada, it was that the place was at least temperate.

It is four o’clock in the morning on the edge of this vast plain of sand, and it is bitching cold. Ragnus folds his arms, tucks his fingers between his ribs and upper arms, and watches his breath stream out over the top of his muffler.

He cannot possibly sleep at a time like this. There are other people on watch, of course—but they’ll be departing in a few hours, and impatience gnaws at him.

Everything in him—everything but common sense—is screaming at him that he has to go, he has to run ahead and cut down the enemies before him right now because the damned stars only know that somewhere down the line Robertus is waiting, and after him the bastard Emperor himself. And they’ve been waiting fifteen years to meet justice for what they did, for all the things they took away from him.

If he cannot gather up his weapons and just walk away right now, then he at least wants to rouse Esperanza and push them across the desert as quickly as possible. But that would be impractical. The men need rest to cross this unforgiving and unfamiliar terrain, let alone to keep fighting and win what they needed to even out the playing field for the war. If he is going to lead them, then he needs to be smart about it.

What he lacks in actual connections to them, he can at least make up for with skill. And they’re only going to be able to make this work if he can keep his head.

He tells himself this. And paces the skirts of their camp impatiently, glaring across the desert.


Ragnus spares a glance over his shoulder. There’s a hint of pale blue creeping towards the horizon, and Julio jogging towards him with his arms full of blanket.

He turns around halfway, right foot still pointing towards their next destination, and crosses his arms more tightly against the temperature as he stares at his baby brother (who is not, after all, really his). Julio is fifteen now, finally growing into his hands and feet and the stamp of Ricard Raguel upon his face but still too puppyish to pretend at being a man grown. Ragnus can sympathize with that state of in-between.

“You should go back to bed if you think you can still sleep,” he says. The camp is quiet enough that Julio will hear him even if he doesn’t raise his voice. “It’s going to be a pretty rough march when we head out.”

Julio just hoists the blanket up as his deerskin boots patter on the rocky ground, apparently trying to avoid tripping on it. He does not stop until he’s standing next to Ragnus, whom he looks up at reproachfully. “Nii-san, have you slept at all?”

“Enough.” He will probably be proven wrong later, but nerves and desire for revenge have a way of making sleep impossible anyway.

“Then I’ll keep you company until it’s time to get started,” Julio says, smiling. He offers the blanket. “It’s too cold to keep watch alone.”

They sit down on the unforgiving earth, facing away from the sun and wrapping the blanket around them as evenly as possible. Ragnus recognizes the material as much finer wool than what they had at home—this must be from the supplies Harold gave them, then.

Despite the quality and the great masses of fabric, when split amongst two bodies it turns out that there isn’t nearly enough blanket for both of them and any real space between. And because it is bitching cold and Julio is wearing short sleeves like the kind of idiot only little brothers can ever be, Ragnus reaches out to clamp his bloodless fingers on the far side of Julio’s waist and tucks the boy against his side. It is not the most comfortable thing—there is nothing to rest his back against and as a fifteen-year-old boy, Julio is all elbows and knees—but it is warm, and Julio rests his head on his brother’s shoulder and Ragnus allows himself to lean his cheek into that great mass of curly gray-brown hair, and they sit in silence and stare out at the desert.

Predictably, Julio is asleep within fifteen minutes. Ragnus does not try to wake him up.

He feels stretched and thin—pulled close and pushed away at the same time. Julio is so many things he can only wish he was, and yet separated from Fiona, Julio is all that’s left to remind him that Ricard did exist—that there was someone who was willing to take him in and keep him and love him, that there was someone once who said to him that he belonged, that he was Raguel by virtue of being and that the wrongness of the blood in his veins never mattered and never would.


Even if you’re not connected by blood, you’re still the son of a hero, Nii-san—


Ragnus pulls Julio closer against his side and closes his eyes.

(It is Paulo who eventually comes to wake them, laughing and tempting them with beef-and-bean soup that smells of cilantro and pepper, and even as they drag themselves up and walk at a pace that’s half trot to make sure that their share of breakfast doesn’t disappear, Ragnus never lifts his arm from around Julio’s shoulders, nor does Julio make a move to dislodge it.)