The welts on Jack's back burned fiercely, but he'd suffered far worse injuries in past action. Truth was, his knees were in worse shape than his back; concrete wasn't kind to kneecaps, and he'd been kneeling for over an hour while Gath's soldiers peppered him with inane questions. They'd recognized him right off, of course, which was the entire point.
It was barely any fun otherwise.
"I would've thought you had more of your father in you." The man holding the cane - a random lieutenant from Gath's army, no one the intel had marked as important or necessary - tapped it against his thigh. "Would've fought harder. I've heard about your smart mouth, too. No remarks to make about my parentage? No threats about retaliation by your king?"
"You already know you're a bastard," Jack said, grinning. "You don't need me to tell you."
The man stepped back, and white-hot pain spread down Jack's bare back. He gritted his teeth and waited until the blows stopped before taking a breath and adding, "My king doesn't make threats. He acts."
"He sends his weakest soldier, so pitiful you couldn't even evade capture by foot patrols."
Jack sighed and leaned forward, eyes on the ground, which was splashed with random fat droplets of blood. He was tempted to bring his hands forward, because he'd worked the bindings loose over an hour before, but not yet. He'd thought it would take at least another half hour to get free.
Behind Jack the door opened, then closed; one set of footsteps. "Any word?" asked the lieutenant.
"He'll be here in five."
Jack closed his eyes and centered himself away from the pain. Not much longer to wait.
When the door opened again, two more men moved into the small concrete room, and it was at capacity until one of the men stepped out. Then it was just the sadist with the cane, and the two new arrivals, and Jack.
"Sir," said the lieutenant, snapping to attention.
"Tell me what you've found," said the man behind Jack. He knew the voice, had studied it, preparing for this moment. General Lawton. The man responsible for the massacre of over twenty Gilboan soldiers who had fallen into enemy hands. He'd given no quarter, no recognition of the rules of fair treatment of prisoners.
"One man, no rank, only basic equipment." The lieutenant prodded Jack with the toe of his boot, and when Jack failed to lift his head, he kicked him hard in the thigh. Jack gritted his teeth and made no sound. "We recognized him immediately. It's Jack Benjamin - King David's attack dog."
Lawton moved into better position, where he could see Jack. It was a natural thing to do; the light was dim, and Jack was a perfect political prisoner - a bargaining chip of the highest order. His gaze swept Jack head to toe, stopping only briefly on the superficial welts and cuts.
"You've been a soldier a long time," he said. "Soldiers who stay alive through more than one campaign know how to read maps."
"It was dark," Jack said, raising an eyebrow.
The third man in the room stepped around Jack and went to Lawton's side. Jack tilted his face away from the overhead lights to see him more clearly: a young man, with distress in his eyes as he looked at Jack. It was the same look David would get sometimes when he saw a wounded soldier or a lame dog - one part concern, two parts regret, and a mess of indecision about whether to get bandages, or a gun. This man, who was mostly a boy, hadn't seen war, not like Jack or Lawton had.
This was a man whose life was about to end.
Jack moved, twisting up and to the left, shedding the rope from his wrists as he rose. He disarmed the startled guard behind him with a simple maneuver and struck him in the head with his own gun, then turned and pointed the weapon squarely at General Lawton's face, pre-empting his aborted move toward his own sidearm. The young man shrank away as Jack gestured with one hand, and Lawton put his sidearm on the ground.
"All this, just to kill me?" Lawton scoffed. "There are a dozen generals in Gath's army poised to strike upon command. One man's death won't make a difference."
"It will if it's the right man." Jack glanced over at the young man to Lawton's right once more, checking each detail of his face against the description he'd carried in his mind's eye. Mid-twenties, blue eyes, dark blond hair, slender, tender-looking. Intel had uncovered only his incongruous code name: Serpent. It was said he never left Lawton's side -- that he had destroyed Gilboa's banking systems with a few keystrokes, and created technologies enabling Gath's armies to sneak into Gilboan territory, kill civilians, and retake disputed territory. This was the man whose brilliant mind could enable Gath to win the war which never seemed to end.
Well, he would have helped them win.
Having correctly assessed the situation, Serpent flattened himself against the wall, hands out and trembling. Jack dug his fingers into his waistband and pulled out the slender wire within, then mashed the ends together - a simple transmitter with a homing signal. Time for his squadron to move in. Then he shot Serpent squarely between the eyes - a clean kill -- before turning the gun on Lawton. "You're just a bonus."
They lost Peralta before they even cleared the compound, and Jack took a bullet in the left thigh which slowed them down, but not by much. He was back in body armor and a clean shirt, and the pressure bandage made the wound bearable. He could cover a considerable amount of ground now that he was properly equipped. They had to move quickly and without sound; they had no choice. The plan had taken them so far behind enemy lines that it would be four days on foot, moving at night, before they could be sure they were back in Gilboan territory.
When the sun began creeping over the horizon, Isaacs led them toward a clump of bushes and dense copse he'd scouted on the way in, and they crawled beneath, exhausted and in various states of injury. Jack smeared extra mud on his face and hands and scattered dead leaves across his body.
"I'll take first watch," Isaacs said, and disappeared up into the thick foliage of a tree, leaves rustling behind him.
Sleep was slow to come, and so Jack stared out between the gnarled branches and roots, watching the road for any signs of patrols. This was not the way he would have sent soldiers on the hunt, if he'd been the one responsible for finding Gilboan assassins. They'd doubled back and looped around, because a straight path was as good as bread crumbs, but Jack could see their path home as clearly as if it was lit in neon, all the way back to Shiloh.
Back to David, and the kingdom he was still trying to hold together, ten years after taking it.
Jack sighed and turned on his side to pillow his head on his folded arm. His back stung, and the wound in his leg throbbed; the pain was harder to ignore than it would have been just a few years before. He was getting old, wearing out. His usefulness to his king would soon come to an end, even though David denied it at every opportunity. There were young soldiers coming up behind. There were always young ones, ready to kill and thirsty for glory.
He and David had been young once, but it seemed a thousand years since they'd stood in the sun, surrounded by the brilliant signs of God's favor. Now the world was blood and mud and dead boys staring up from cold concrete floors, and Jack was so very, very tired.
Head tucked down to the ground, fingers curled around his gun, he closed his eyes. He thought of warm sunshine, and the ocean spray kissing his face, and David -- his David, the architect of every bit of grace he'd ever known.
Every homecoming was a quiet affair, beginning with a debriefing and ending with a shower and a hot meal. This mission was no different, for all that word had spread of Lawton's assassination.
"There's been rejoicing in the streets," Thomasina said, as she handed Jack a mug of steaming coffee. "The people believe justice has been served."
Jack looked at her, and it was as if he saw her for the very first time in years. Her hair was graying at the temples, and the fine lines around her eyes had deepened. Yet still her loyalty was to Jack, as it had been to his family, when it was still possible for her to care for them.
"Justice is too clean a word for what I do."
"All right. Call it equity, then. One life taken in place of many; one life sacrificed to the greater good."
"You still love to dress up horse shit in couture, don't you? Then again, you had a lifetime of practice with my father." Jack set the mug down with a thump.
"You do what you must, and you do it gladly," Thomasina said. "Because you are what the king needs you to be, but your heart aches because you are still Jack Benjamin, and that pain makes you who you are." Jack squeezed his eyes shut as Thomasina's cool hand traced down the side of his face. "Go to him," she said softly.
He caught her fingertips in his hand and pressed them to his cheek; she kissed the top of his head, and then she slipped away. Jack sat in the kitchen where his father had held court, even with his family. Sometimes he could hear Silas as if he were still with them, his disapproving rumble ricocheting away from the walls like thunder.
No doubt his father would have approved of him in his present state, and that more than anything gave Jack pause.
He made his way upstairs, past guards who nodded to him gravely while triumph danced in their eyes. It made him weary to be thought of as a hero.
David's bed was wide, and wrapped in the softest blue sheets and coverlet imaginable. Jack stared at it for a long moment, unable to believe he was really there, before he shed his clothes without ceremony and sprawled out across it horizontally. The pillows looked inviting, but they were too far away, and he lacked the proper motivation to crawl up to capture them for his own. Instead he closed his eyes and breathed in the longed-for scents of clean bedding and David - the warm, earthy smell of trees and sunshine.
Every time he returned from a mission away, he craved that comfort more.
He drifted on the cusp of sleep until he heard the door open, and then the rustle of clothing being removed. All good, welcome sounds, so Jack's body relaxed into the softness, waiting.
David's hands were on him, a searching, gentle touch across the many half-healed welts and bruises on his back and arms, and the bandaged wound on his thigh. Jack spread his legs and arched into David's fingertips, which examined every visible inch.
When his need for information was satisfied, David joined Jack on the bed, his solid warm body covering Jack's completely, with careful pressure and adjustment so his weight was not pressing too hard in any one place. His hands slid beneath Jack's shoulders, curving there, and he pulled gently until Jack was on his side, David slotted against his back. Jack closed his eyes and let David inspect his torso for wounds and marks. Then he tilted his head and waited for David's kiss, a thorough and mutual re-claiming.
More kisses, to his closed eyes, to the bruise on his jaw, to the fading marks at his wrists. David wrapped him tightly in the embrace Jack had dreamed of when he dared to let his mind wander away from the demands of stark survival.
"You have no idea what it does to my heart to see you whole and here with me," David whispered, as he pressed a kiss to Jack's shoulder.
"And with the mission accomplished."
"Yes." David released him, and Jack rolled to his back, the better to see David's face. There was an odd tone to David's voice, and his eyes were troubled.
"What is it?" Jack asked.
In answer, David rested a hand on Jack's thigh, near the bandaged wound. "The plan was reckless, and you were lucky to have escaped the compound."
"The plan was what was required - there was no way to get deep enough into the facility to get to the scientist, even with a covert raid. Someone had to be up close and personal, and Lawton was arrogant enough to underestimate me." It was an old scenario for Jack; even with the reputation he'd cultivated in the years since David had ascended the throne, people couldn't move past what he'd been before.
It worked to his advantage, but the baggage was heavy to carry.
"Perhaps, but. You're so careless with your life," David said.
"I'm anything but careless." Jack shifted position, allowing room for David between his legs, and curled one leg around David's back. "I take very good care of the king's property."
"Jack." Now David had that look, the one that said he wasn't going to tolerate being teased on that topic. Even if it was true. Jack was David's, had been David's for some time and would always be, as long as David could stand to allow his presence. "You aren't indestructible." He moved down Jack's body, pressing more kisses to his skin.
Jack spread his legs wide. David wasted no time taking Jack's cock in his mouth, palms curved beneath the globes of Jack's ass, the better to lift the feast to his mouth more quickly.
Jack's fingers touched David's fair hair, and fluttered around the invisible crown, imagining butterflies there. Butterflies were bright, beautiful things, vivid harbingers of freedom, but so easily damaged; one touch to their wing, and they were out of the sky.
"They called me your attack dog." Jack traced the line of David's jaw, panting softly as David's mouth moved on him and his wet fingers slipped inside Jack's body. "King David's faithful hound, who follows orders and keeps the peace." David pulled back to look at him, and Jack tried to make his face impassive stone, but he had never been able to hide much from David. "They aren't wrong."
"They're completely wrong." David kissed him slowly, hand moving in place of his mouth, and said, "They account only for your loyalty, without understanding that obedience to me was never a part of it."
"No?" Jack arched a brow. "Could have fooled me. All these mission orders were yours, you know."
"You're obedient to God, Jack, and to your own conscience. Don't try to pretend otherwise, because I know damn well there are orders you wouldn't follow. You forget how much persuasion it used to require to move you off a point." David grinned at him, and suddenly Jack did remember - a thousand arguments in those first days, when David was an untested king and Jack still unsure of his place at David's side. "You may be mine, but you're not a dog or a weapon."
Jack had long believed himself to be both, but he knew that stubborn look on David's face. It was the look of a man who loved both fully, and unwisely, and would never be persuaded that he was wrong. "What am I, then?" Jack asked, wanting the answer only because his heart was sore and aching.
"You are my voice," David said, pressing his lips to the hollow of Jack's throat. "My limbs," he added, as he kissed Jack's shoulder, then the thin skin inside his elbow. "My body, when I cannot be there."
"So a ghost, then," Jack said. "Or a shadow."
"No." David rose up over him and slid inside him, so easily, so perfectly that Jack's breath caught. It was always like this when they fit together, strength meeting strength. "My echo. When I speak, we speak as one. You make each whisper a shout, each word a roar."
"Echoes fade," Jack pointed out, though he was rapidly losing the will to argue, with David joined to him once again.
"Echoes are memory," David answered. "Living on, after...after the sound has gone."
Jack wrapped his legs around David's waist, pulling him inexorably forward, and claimed another kiss from him as David fucked him slowly. It would never last long enough, or go deep enough, but Jack was content with what he had, for as long as God allowed him to have it. His climax broke over him sharp and hot, David's teeth worrying a nipple, his hot breath against Jack's chest as he gasped and came inside him.
They held each other, breathing together, until the waves of pleasure had passed. David withdrew carefully, but didn't go far. He settled at Jack's side, still touching him. Always touching him; always full of faith, when Jack had none left to draw upon.
"Whatever you need me to be," Jack whispered.
"Then be here, with me." David smiled at him, and his smile held the answers to all Jack's questions.