"Let's go," I say.
"Yes," Vallewida answers. We walk side by side, along the crowded street, and when for a moment I lose the sight of him because someone is making his way between us, I feel panic. What if he disappears now, what if we miss each other, taken apart by the very fate that has just brought us together?
I want to clasp his hand - to make sure he won't go anywhere. But there is a problem - both my hands are occupied with packages.
It seems Vallewida notices my dilemma.
"I'll help," he says. That's when I notice his clothes. He looks so smart in his blue jacket and grey trousers! His hair is tied with a white ribbon. I step back, clasping the packages tighter.
"No way! You'll dirty your pretty clothes!"
He smiles. It's not the kind of smile that I used to see in prison - that smile had neither joy nor life in it, was just a mask of a man who pretended to be all right because no one cared anyway. There is only a shadow of sadness left in his smile now, and it probably won't ever go away.
"I won't get dirty," he says and takes one of the packages. It's okay, I think: now he won't disappear. It's a strange thought - as if deep inside I still don't quite believe that Vallewida is a man of flesh and blood, and I need such a material thing as the package to keep him tied him to this world. And I don't dare to take his hand in the end.
Together we approach the store.
"Oh," my boss meets us, "found your friend, I see."
I look at Vallewida in surprise, then smack myself on the forehead. Of course, it was not an accident that he was in the street! He's come to visit me - just as Evan promised.
"Yes, thank you."
I see that Vallewida's gentle voice and good manners make an impression on my boss.
"Hey, kid," he says to me grumpily, "there is nothing to do right now anyway. You can have an hour break."
"Really?" an exultant yell breaks from me.
I grab Vallewida's hand and drag him after me to the back door. He just delays a little to thank my boss. His fingers in my hand are thin and warm, and I feel a pang of joy that I finally touch him.
In the back part of the store there is a room where we usually have lunch or drink tea - I want to offer Vallewida some tea. That's the idea, anyway. But in the dim corridor I suddenly stop.
I don't know what happens to me - oh well, I know. All of a sudden I need - immediately, right now - need to know where we stand. I feel butterflies in my stomach but I have to know. Has he come just, as Evan said, to thank me or…
He looks at me with his attentive and gentle expression, tilting his head slightly.
"Have you come - for good?"
His eyes go wide - it seems he hasn't expected the question. And I regret asking. Of course, he hasn't - he has his own life, he has a family, and that woman… what if he met her again and she waited for him? But a moment later his eyes start shining - as if gathering all the light that breaks through the half-opened door.
"If you want me to, Guys," he says.
Do I want it? It's weird but I can't say that simple word, can't express my wish clearly and firmly. My breath is caught. And, without saying anything, I make a step forward, burying my face against his shoulder, and sigh out in relief. And a moment later his light hands touch my back, carefully as if I'm fragile and might break.
This thought makes me laugh - and at the same time I feel something wet in my eyes. But I won't cry, I'm not a girl - and there is no reason to cry anyway. It's funny, I think distracting myself, when we met last time Vallewida seemed taller. Of course, when we met for the first time, he seemed, like, *really* tall to me. But I've grown - keep growing - and he doesn't. Yet there is still difference in height.
Just enough difference for me to rise on tiptoes to press my lips to his. I do it quickly - in order not to chicken out again. It's not the best kiss in the world, I have to admit - I'm not a good kisser - at least I don't remember when I initiated one last time. Besides, it seems to surprise him because he starts back a little and knocks his head on the wall.
"Vallewida," I say with reproach. He smiles apologetically, and at this moment he reminds his previous self more than ever. I feel a wave of heat. I rise on tiptoes again and kiss him, more resolutely this time. His mouth opens for my tongue.
Some moments later I come round, and it turns out that I somehow managed to pull the ribbon off his hair and now am trying to get rid of his necktie. Even in dim light one can see Vallewida's face burning - and my cheeks are just aflame, blood is beating in my ears. We breathe loudly, even though out of cadence. Vallewida's lips are wet with my kisses.
Shit, if I don't stop thinking about it, I'll take him here and now. And then I get sacked… or we both get arrested for indecent behavior.
"I can't wait till evening," I complain. Vallewida readjusts his necktie - how does he manage to stay so composed?
"I'll wait for you after work, Guys," he says. I don't ask if it's a promise - I know it is.
The rest of the day passes in a whirl. I should expect time to drag but in fact it flies, likely because I have so many thoughts on my mind. Has he found his family? Where did he get these fine clothes? Where are his things? Will he want to stay when he sees my room - sadly, I neglected cleaning during last weeks. And I only have one bed, a narrow one, but…
Finally the boss lets me go. I run out looking around. Vallewida really waits for me - on the other side of the street, the setting sun is casting orange light on his face. I run up to him.
Somehow we don't discuss what to do - we just walk. I take him home. To the building where I rent a room, upstairs to the fifth floor. We come in, I lock the door - and then we both stop.
Suddenly the weight of the moment descends on me. I've been waiting for that, I want that - so much that I never doubt it'll happen. But… it'll be our first time. That is, not the first at all - because there was that time when I took him in Durer's place - but it was just different, he didn't see my face, he didn't even know it was me… and he wasn't himself then.
That's the thing. As many times I saw him in sexual situations with Durer, with Bollanet - it always was another Vallewida, a porcelain doll, a marionette, obediently following orders and submitting himself to sexual whims of others. With me now… he'll be himself. And I'm scared. What if I fail? What if I turn out insufficient?
I hear Vallewida sigh out; he's leaning against the wall, as if the ascent has tired him. A sudden thought flashes in my mind: if I'm scared, that how frightened he must be! I had very few good experiences in prison but for him - for him male sex was always only rape and humiliation, from the beginning. And now he has to agree to it consciously - without the hope to hide behind his ghost mode.
It is for me, I think, he's doing it for me. I turn to him and brace my arms around him. He probably has been ready to it but even then his body slightly tenses for a moment - and then he answers my embrace. I sigh out in relief and start unbuttoning his shirt, carefully, as if trying not to frighten him.
He helps me - fortunately, because it turns out I should've taken off his necktie first. He reaches for my shirt - for some reason he copes with my buttons much more deftly than I do with his. When I pull his shirt down from his shoulders, I halt. His chest and arms are covered in a net of scars. There are no fresh ones among them - but those old ones are forever there, likely. This image imprints in my mind exactly as it is: what I see in the physical manifestation of the scars he wears on his soul.
My room is so small that two steps bring us to the bed. The bed is really narrow but it doesn't matter since I get onto Vallewida anyway. What is worse is that it creaks terribly under our double weight. I want to laugh and I'm ashamed that the neighbors will hear, and I hide my face against Vallewida's chest. He laughs quietly and strokes my hair.
"Hey!" I toss my head. "I'm not a cat."
As if to prove that I resolutely discard my shirt and press my chest to his. There is more confidence in my movements than I feel. But my body isn't in doubt - I feel my underwear getting too tight for me. I kiss Vallewida's face, push away his hair to kiss his neck, go down to his chest. His breath catches. This sound and his hard cock that I feel where are bodies touch are the only signs of his arousal. But I think it's enough, he doesn't have to do anything, I'll do everything myself, I'll lead him, I'll let him get used.
At this moment Vallewida rises and presses his lips to mine. There is no hesitation or clumsiness in this kiss - and oh so much skill! My body jerks in a twinge of pleasure spreading from our touching mouths. My eyes go wide open in surprise.
Vallewida's face, pink, his eyelids lowered, is very close to mine - and suddenly it seems to me that his stare has got blank - like when he was in the ghost mode with Durer and Bollanet. Is it happening again? Have I done something wrong?
I start back in fear, cry out:
"What?" his eyes open; his expression is very innocent. I sigh with relief.
"Nothing. I thought you again…"
"Ah." He understands even though I don't finish. For a moment I'm afraid he's got offended but he adds with a quiet laugh. "No, Guys. With you it won't happen to me."
"All right," I say. But this incident dampens my arousal somewhat. I stretch near to Vallewida and put my head onto his chest. He hugs me. It seems he's okay with us just lying like that for a while.
"Vallewida?" A thought suddenly strikes me.
"After you recalled everything - when with Durer - did you fake it?" your ghost mode, I mean. I feel him tense under me. It was a bad question, I know - I shouldn't have asked it.
"Durer… he didn't notice," Vallewida says at last. "He always thought I was just pretending in the beginning, and then - then it was real me. I resisted him a little - for him not to suspect anything. I didn't want to die any more," he says as if admitting something shameful. "At first I wanted to make sure you were acquitted. Then Evan said you'd found it."
"You had to tell me about it," I grumble. "At least give me a hint."
I know there was no time for that - but the thought of what could have happened had I not broken the crucifix by accident makes me get covered in cold sweat.
Vallewida says one of the strangest things in the world:
"I knew you'd find it, Guys." And even though I want to yell at him that I wouldn't have, it was an accident, I don't have time. "Thank you," he says. It was for that, according to Evan, that he was supposed to come to me. And it is strange how much more and much less than I need it is.
I press my cheek to his chest. Right under my lips there is a deep scar that I don't remember. Perhaps it was inflicted already after I got released but I can't be sure, after all I never looked at Vallewida without clothes very closely. Under some strange emotion I turn my head a little and touch this scar with my lips. I feel Vallewida flinch slightly, as if I hurt him.
My breath is strangled. I kiss the rough line of the scar and hear Vallewida let out a barely audibly sigh. There is something dizzyingly erotic in this sound.
My mood changes in a moment. I stick out my tongue and run it over Vallewida's chest. Another soft sound escapes him. I lick his chest leaving a wet trail towards his nipple that gets hard under my tongue. I smile broadly.
Vallewida squirms under my touches and I hear his soft laughter.
"You *are* a cat, Guys."
"Am I? Am I? I'll show you a cat!"
My arousal makes my trousers so tight that I have difficulty taking them off; finally I do it, together with my underwear, and then I pull down Vallewida's pants almost roughly. He raises his hips obligingly looking at me with a smile that gladdens and angers me at the same time. I'm not a cat, I'm not a child as he called me once before Durer - my cock proves it standing upright, and a drop of clear fluid falls from it onto Vallewida's stomach. But the sight of his own cock, also completely hard, makes me forgive his condescending manner. And I like how he breathes - slowly and deeply, trying to control his arousal. For a few seconds we look at each other and then Vallewida moves his legs apart slightly, as if inviting me.
This little movement makes me feel like I'm going to burst. I bite my lip; I need to control myself or it'll end too quickly.
"Oh," I say in desperate effort to keep my voice level, "looks like you want me there?"
Vallewida's face changes - like he's drunk, his stare is wild, helpless. Looking up at the ceiling he says quietly:
This answer is not a concession but almost a challenge.
I don't make him ask me twice. I quickly lick two of my fingers and press them to his sphincter. I remember how dilated his hole was when I pulled out Durer's toy. But a few months passed since Durer was gone, and Vallewida probably didn't have anyone during that time. So I'd better be careful. Vallewida exhales, relaxing, and my fingers slip in.
This tight, warm grip on my fingers is almost enough to make me come - my imagination is too vivid picturing the rest. I bite my lip almost bloody, slowly pull my fingers out and push back. Vallewida tosses his head up. For a moment I'm afraid it's with pain but he raises his thighs towards my hand. Have I touched that place in him? I repeat my movement. A soft moan breaks from Vallewida's lips - barely audible but delighting me.
"Do you want more?" I say trying to sound playful but my voice is shaking. "And more? And more?"
For every my question, every movement of my fingers Vallewida replies with a gasp. I see his Adam's apple moving. His fingers crumple the sheet, his face is wet with sweat.
I want to kiss him. I want to make him beg me. I want to make him scream with pleasure. Well, the last one is not such a good idea - the wall here are too thin.
His head flips on the pillow in cadence with my movements, his hair is moist and clinging to his forehead. Suddenly he rises, looking at me with misted eyes.
"I need… you."
This straightforwardness makes me dizzy. I pull out my fingers. Vallewida instinctively tries to clench his thighs as if not to let them go - I think he doesn't realize he's doing it but the gesture is heady in its indecency. I barely have self-control to spit into my palm and run it over my cock. Then I set into the position and enter Vallewida in one push.
He cries out too loudly. There is knocking on the wall from the right - a neighbor who hates noise.
"Shut up, it's not a brothel!"
We both freeze. Vallewida smile apologetically. When he smiles like that, I want to lick this smile from his face, like a cat licks cream.
"Guys," he whispers.
And the way he says my name - like something sacred - together with the heat and tight grip of his rectum around my cock make me lose it completely. I pull out almost fully - and slam in again, with force, with a moist, slapping sound, to the accompaniment of my breath and Vallewida's soft moans. It is… it is really indecent, really wild, really dirty, delightfully dirty…
Vallewida's chest shines with sweat, his long hair half-hides his face. He is beautiful. His composure is gone completely - and the realization that it is me who's made him forget his self-control delights me even more. I reach my finger and touch the head of his cock that is wet with pre-come. Vallewida flinches as if this stimulus is even too much for him.
"You are so lewd," I whisper, "so filthy, so… I like it so much that you need more, I like when you ask for more…"
"Aah," with a sudden moan Vallewida comes - and I manage one, two more pushes and then shoot inside him.
The orgasm is so strong and seems to go on for so long that when it is over I have no more strength for anything but to flop down over Vallewida unceremoniously. My softening cock slips out of him. He hugs me, pulling closer.
"I'm sorry," I whisper against his collarbone. I was saying stupid things, don't know why I felt like saying them. And I teased him, made him say what he wanted. "I'm not better than Durer."
His fingers running over my hair stop. After a pause he says:
"Don't you ever say that. You're not like Durer in any way." And a few seconds later he adds. "I really… like it. Your voice when you talk like that - I like it."
I know he says the truth - he sounds too embarrassed.
"Oh. Okay then," I say.
In silence we lie together until the film of drying sperm becomes too uncomfortable. I think that I should get up and bring a wet towel but Vallewida beats me in that. He quickly finds the towel under the sink and brings it, wipes my thighs first - I squirm and giggle with cold water. Then he quickly takes care of himself.
"What is it?"
Next thing he gives me a paper parcel - he's brought it along, I remember. I look inside - there is food there. My stomach growls loudly. I go red. For the whole day I kept thinking I should buy something to eat - Vallewida looks just as thin as he was in prison, and then he was nearly a specter. And I forgot! And he took care of me again.
"You eat, too," I push bread and cheese into his hand. He nods and sits down on the bed.
We eat and talk. He tells me that he's found his family - they had to move when he was arrested - just like my family did. Of course, they were overjoyed when he returned.
I smile holding a chunk of bread in my hand, thinking of my parents. They felt sad when I said I wasn't staying with them. But I did it to wait for Vallewida.
And now he's here. My parents knew I was waiting for someone - they probably would be glad to know that my waiting was not in vain. But of course, I recall, Vallewida is not a girl I can introduce to my parents. I'll probably have to keep everything secret from them for a long time. But now I don't want to think about it, there are more important things.
"We can't live in this room," I say, "there is only one bed."
"Sure," Vallewida says, and his seriousness gladdens me for some reason. "We'll find a bigger flat. I… was paid some compensation. I gave a part of it to my family but I still have some means. And I'll start looking for job at once."
The thought of us living together like that, coming home from work every evening, being together, alone, suddenly makes me go still - as if this image is already in front of my eyes, fascinating me. Then my eyelids seem to go very heavy and I slide down on the bed. Half asleep, I feel Vallewida take the piece of bread out of my hand. He laughs softly.
"What?" I mutter sleepily.
"Nothing. Sleep. You'll have to work tomorrow."
"And you'll go find a flat for us."
* * *
I nearly oversleep in the morning. I just have time to splash some water at my face and brush my hair with my fingers. Vallewida sits up in bed when hearing the racket I make. His face, pink from sleep and framed with tousled hair, looks innocent like a girl's but his body is a body of a man who's gone through a grinder. The sight of his scars in the bright light makes me wince but I can't tear my eyes away from him. If I keep standing like this, I'll be late.
"Lock the door, put the key under the mat," I say grabbing some bread from the table. "And eat something!"
"Okay," he says.
I spend the morning running on errands. And when by the lunchtime I return to the store, I stop in amazement. Vallewida is standing right next to my boss and talking to him; he smiles seeing me.
"Hey, kid," my boss calls, "your friend says he's looking for a job of an accountant. He really can count, can't he?"
"Not only count," I say proudly. "He is very clever! He reads all the time. And he knows a lot about… and about…"
At the last moment I realize that espionage and weaponry are not two topics being knowledgeable in can serve as a recommendation.
"He asks if I know someone who needs an accountant," the boss continues. "It is the old Vainer who counts for the stores in the street. But he's nearly blind now, always makes mistakes. What if your friend tries to count for me for this month? Free of charge, of course. If he does all right, I'll recommend him to the others."
I don't know what to say. I didn't know Vallewida would want to be an accountant. It is so… unromantic. But he probably needs peace more than romantics now.
"It's a good proposal, Mr. Sora," Vallewida says and reaches out his hand to my boss.
We have lunch in the backyard of the store, feeding bread crumbles to sparrows. Vallewida screws up his eyes in the sun, there is a happy little smile on his lips he is likely not aware of. I understand him - even now, months after my release, I sometimes feel unexpected joy of being out, of being able to look up and see the sky and not the barred window.
"You're quick," I say. Vallewida stops squinting and turns to me.
"I've even found a flat, too - if you like it."
"Whoa!" I jump with joy. "Let's see it in the evening!"
The room he's found is in about twenty minutes from my work - farther than I live now but what is twenty minutes! The room is tiny - just two beds at the opposite walls and a table between them but one of the room's corners is occupied with a tall round stove in white tiles. I think Vallewida really likes the stove - and I like to watch him when he likes something, so, I actively express my enthusiasm about the room.
We can move there on my day-off and for now we go back to my place. Actually, Vallewida left his things at a hotel but when he says he should spend the night there because I need sleep, I cry out almost a desperate "no!"
Since the moment when he's come to me - for some reason it seems just wrong for me to part with him unless there is a very forcible reason.
Half an hour later he's in my bed, on his hands and knees - what, it should've been expected, I seem to be unable to keep my hands away from him when we are alone. His long hair half-hides his face but I can see he's flushed. He gasps when I touch his anus.
I don't know why but the thought of the many various objects that Durer likely put into him - not to mention his dick - seems intoxicating, maybe even more so because at the same time waves of sympathy flood me. I want to wipe off all the pain from his memory - and want to inflict him pain, too, to imprint my own mark into his body and mind.
I move forward slightly, touching his anus with my cock, teasing him. Vallewida flinches slightly. Now his anus is shining moistly with my pre-come. It's an indecent sight, and I feel lightheaded.
"Should I continue, I wonder," I drawl. "Or should I do something else?"
It's strange, his sight makes me say such things - things I feel shame for later. The muscles of his thighs tremble with strain.
"Guys," he whispers.
My name seems a sufficient answer for me. Easily, like a hand into a glove, I slide into him.
The rhythm of the movements inside him, his trembling, ragged sighs, slapping sound of our bodies carry me away. In a way taking him like that, like an animal, is even more arousing than what we did yesterday. I grab his hips slamming into him with even more force, even deeper. He bites the pillow to shush his moans.
Suddenly I put my arms around his waist and pull him closer to me, sitting him down onto my lap. It's unexpected even for me, and Vallewida lets out a soft "oh". As deep as I've been entering him until now, at this moment my cock is buried inside him to the root. For a few seconds we sit quietly, stricken with sensations. Then Vallewida rises slightly and slides down on my cock again. Now it's my turn to moan.
He rises over my lap and goes down again, and I reach to his chest, find his hard nipples and squeeze them. He tosses his head back, his moist hair brushes my face.
"More," he whispers, "more."
My face burns when I realize it's not a Vallewida in ghost mode who begs me for it - it's him real and conscious. I squeeze his nipples even harder - and there is more frenzy in his movements. I'm probably hurting him. But he wants it. And I want, too.
We come together, frozen in a sweet spasm that seems to go on forever.
Later my head rests on his shoulder. Our fingers are intertwined. We talk of our new room, of his new job, of things we'll need to buy, of a letter we should write to Lusca and Evan. I nearly fall asleep. But before that there is something I need to do.
"Sorry," I whisper and press my lips to his neck.
Once I saw red marks of Durer's kisses on his neck. Since then I wanted to do that. For him to wear my mark. No one will see in under the necktie but we'll know it's there.
"Sorry," I repeat, embarrassed, and kiss the reddened place. Vallewida doesn't say anything, just moves slightly for me to get more comfortable. His hand doesn't let mine go. I fall asleep like that.
But at night he wrenches his hand out of mine - I wake up because of it. In the grey light of a short night I see him sitting in the bed, straight like a plank. His arms are clasped to his chest, his fists clenched - so hard that it seems his bones are going to snap. A bad premonition floods me.
"Hey? Vallewida?" He doesn't answer, and maybe my voice sounds too soft with fear. His eyes are open, and there is such endless horror in them that I feel shaky.
He told me he wouldn't go to the ghost mode again - but I think in sleep he has no control over it. Sometimes the past just overwhelms him.
I don't know what exactly he sees - might be anything, there were too many bad things in his life. I don't want him to experience them again, even in a dream. I reach my hand to wake him up - but he's so tense, his muscles seem to vibrate, and I'm afraid he'll lash out at me if I touch him. A sudden strange sound reaches me: he's grinding his teeth.
It's more than I can stand. I grab a glass of water and splash it at him. Vallewida flinches and blinks in surprise. Water runs over his hair, drips from his eyelashes. He looks confused and guilty - but at least he doesn't look scared beyond reason any more.
"Guys," he says. I'm afraid I eye him quite resentfully: he's frightened me. My voice sounds coarse when I speak:
"You all right?"
"Yes. Yes." He holds his head. "Sorry."
Water drips from his hair. I get up and bring a towel for him. He starts drying his hair mechanically. I'm not sure I want to know what exactly is the reason for his state. Suddenly he looks up.
"I should leave, shouldn't I?"
What? I don't understand what it is for. If he's angry that I've poured water onto him, it's his own fault: he's frightened me. And I didn't want him to break my jaw taking me for someone else. Without looking at me he continues:
"I thought it wouldn't happen again. That now when I remember everything, I'll be normal. But it looks like I still can't… You don't need it, Guys. You don't deserve it."
"What… what are you saying?" I try to laugh but my voice sounds shaky. "It's just a nightmare, who cares! Everyone has nightmares, I have thousands of them! (Well, I exaggerated about thousands but sometimes I really have dreams I don't care to remember). What's wrong with it? I just didn't know what to do - you looked like it was better not to touch you, so, I thought…"
"You were right," he says, "but it's not…"
"No "buts"! No "buts"! I'll put a glass of water next to me every night - and if you dream something bad again, I'll just - hop!"
Our flat, our plans, our future - he can't back away from it, can't discard it! I won't let him!
"You don't know what you deal with, Guys."
"I don't know? Three years in the next cell, remember?" I say cheerfully. "Worse than I saw you in prison you won't be. Besides, by day you're all right. And yesterday it was all right - so, it doesn't even happen every night!"
I speak as convincingly as I can - but I'm still afraid he'll make his own decision.
"You've come to me for good," I say quietly. He's come - he can't undo it, can't take it back.
For a few moments he doesn't answer. The towel doesn't move in his hands. And when he speaks, his voice is even quieter than mine.
"If you think you can cope with it."
"Of course, I can! You said yourself that I'm strong!" Relief floods me. Suddenly everything seems easy. "Give it to me," I grab the towel and start wiping his hair. His smile is paler than it's been by day but at least he smiles.
When we settle to sleep again, I hook my leg over his and wrap my arms around his arm for a good measure. Just to be sure. It's not that I'm afraid he'll change his mind but better safe than sorry.
"Thank you, Guys," he says.
* * *
Vallewida copes with his task perfectly, and my boss is as good as his word - he recommends him to the others. After a short while there are already six small stores Vallewida is making accounting jobs for. There are more who'd like to hire him but he just doesn't have more time.
He rents a small room for work near to the store where I work. During my lunch break I always stop by there - Vallewida sits at the table, in black sleeve-protectors, his hair in a ponytail, and clicks abacus. For some reason when I see him like that I always feel like doing some stupid things, and sometimes I do them.
That's the way our liaison got to the open. My fault: one of Vallewida's clients walked in, and I was too carried away. The poor guy ran in shock, and very soon three of six storeowners declined Vallewida's services. Fortunately, my boss was not among them. However, Vallewida found new customers - it looks like he really can count; he said it was one of the things he learned in the army.
We were really worried that we would be asked to move out because of the rumors. We really got attached to our flat. But our landlady, a nice old woman, either didn't listen to gossips or didn't care.
We often spend evenings - me with my head on Vallewida's lap, him with a book. He reads aloud for me in his gentle voice. The original idea has been to broaden my mental outlook by that but I always fall asleep when he's reading, and it seems he doesn't mind.
The round stove in our room turns out very useful in winter. I think Vallewida feels bad when it's cold - his body is too damaged, and sometimes old wounds start aching with cold.
The glass of water in on the table next to me every night - and I'm glad I don't have to use it all that often; even rarer with time. I hope I won't need it at all soon.
And recently Vallewida catches me with some boring calculations of his and asks if I'm going to spend the rest of my life as an errand boy.
"And what should I do?" I snap back.
"Mr. Menz is going to retire and wants to sell his store. I've calculated that if we use what we have and take a credit, we can…"
"He has a *haberdashery*!"
"I'm not going to sell ribbons and lace!"
But Vallewida's patient look has some strange power over me.
"No one will want to buy from us! We are scandalous!"
"Ooh. Guys, it might surprise you."
When he tries to hide his smile like that I can't think of anything else, just of how much I want to kiss him.
In the end he is right. Our store is always crowded. Especially when he's at the counter, in his white shirt, a silk ribbon in his hair… he's almost unreasonably good-looking. I'm not jealous, of course - well, I'm almost not jealous - I know that no matter how polite he is with customers, the warmth in his eyes is only for me.
And I'm also popular - among older ladies, it seems. I can't say I'm happy when they call me "child" and pinch my cheek. But I can swear I've seen once of twice that angry sparkle in Vallewida's eyes when someone was cooing over me too much. And I'm satisfied.
* * *
It happens as it always does - when you wait for it least of all. When you see a coming blow, you can at least prepare and try to avoid it. But life never gives a warning before it hits.
It's a warm spring day, so bright and sunny that our store is surprisingly empty. There are only two ladies looking at ribbons and another one, it seems, is flirting with Vallewida under the pretext of choosing buttons. I glare at them while putting goods onto the shelves.
The bell over the door rings. There are two more people - one of them is a small woman in a cap and a wide dress - I know that this cut is used to hide pregnancy (now I know more about women's clothes than I ever wanted to). She is accompanied by a rare guest in our store - a man in military uniform. I quite sympathize with his expression of boredom and awkwardness.
I turn back to the shelves, hear the cheerful voice of the new lady, asking Vallewida:
"Could you show me the blue threads, please?"
"A moment, madam," he says. And then there is a rattle.
I turn around.
"Vallewida!" I cry out in reproach. What has he done! He's dropped all the spools onto the floor and even doesn't try to pick them up, is just standing here with a box in his hands. Then I look at his face and gasp. I haven't seen him so pale since prison. All the blood is drained from his face, even his lips are white. And he stares - past the woman - at the soldier next to her.
I also look at him. He is tall and well-built, dark-haired. He has thin neat moustaches. His dark eyes are also locked on Vallewida. But if Vallewida seems to look at some nightmare, then this man's expression - I don't know how to describe it, and I don't like it a bit - is of surprise, joy and some strange triumph.
I don't know how I suddenly manage to understand everything. I don't need to ask, don't need explanations - I just know it. I know who this man is.
I react instinctively, act without planning: come up to Vallewida, yank the empty box out of his hands and push him to the store room.
"See what you've done?" My voice sounds terribly cheerful. "You'll scare off our clients. You'd better go make the list of new goods. Go!"
If he can't take care of himself, I'll do it. That's what I am for. He moves like in trance, not resisting at all. I close the door after him and turn to the woman.
"I'm sorry, ma'am, my clumsy partner lost all the threads. Do you want to look at some other color?"
She regards that idea frowning prettily.
"Perhaps you shouldn't bother, Melinda?" the man says. It seems he's already in control. The woman shrugs and walks to the door. He opens the door for her.
"Yes, you shouldn't bother, Mr. Ellis," I say quietly. I see how his back freezes - as if I hit his between his shoulder-blades. Then he leaves without looking back.
Yes. Let him know. That I know who he is. And what he's done. And if he tries… if he tries to touch Vallewida…
I won't let this man hurt him again. I'll use any means necessary not to allow it. I'll fight dirty but I'll be able to protect what's dear to me.
After satisfying other customers, I walk back to the store room. Frankly speaking, I'm a bit afraid I might find Vallewida as he was in prison - with an empty stare, repeating incoherent words.
He turns to me when hearing my steps. His apologetic smile makes my heart clench. His hair is wet - as it happens at night when I splash water onto him. But this nightmare can't be washed off with water.
"Guys, sorry," he says. My fists are clenched and my expression is probably so angry that Vallewida looks even guiltier. "I don't know what happened to me…"
I know. I know everything. And if this son of a bitch comes here again, I… I'll tell his wife what he's done. It's a mean thought, Vallewida wouldn't be horrified if he knew of it but I'm so furious that there are no means too dirty for me.
And yet… yet, as ashamed I am to admit it, there is something more to my anger. Something that makes it not so pure and righteous. I remember Vallewida say that this man loved him - that's why he did what he did. And I can't help thinking: what if on the nights when Vallewida sits up in bed like that - it's because he goes through it again and again, trying to change it, wishing he knew about this love sooner - wishing it could be different between them…
And when I think about it, I don't know whom I want to hit more - Ellis, Vallewida or myself - my stupid, stupid head!
I'm really stupid! How can I even think about it! Releasing my breath with a loud sound, I make a step towards Vallewida and put my arms around him. After a moment of confusion he holds me tightly.
"Guys," he whispers. When he says my name so gently, I sometimes feel like crying. Vallewida strokes my hair.
"Is everything all right?" he asks.
Is it all right? It was all right half an hour ago, when I pouted at my boring job and thought of approaching lunch. When there was no this visitor from the past in our lives. But something in Vallewida's voice tells me that he doesn't quite ask, he begs.
And I answer, holding him even tighter, as if trying to merge our bodies into one:
"Everything's all right. It will be." * * *
That night I dream of silent villages. Cattle-sheds are open, and there are no cows or horses there, just the wind licking white bones left right in the street. I dream of men and women who move slowly as if the resistance of air is too much for them. In their dull eyes on the emaciated faces there is nothing but old, bleak, hopeless hunger.
I dream of Vallewida, almost a boy, not older than me, his hair short - he's coughing blood on the floor. His hands are tied behind his back and when a boot slams under his ribs, he tries to avoid it, like he did with Durer. But those who beat him know the same tricks, they don't let him come off easy.
I see them yank him up on his knees when the door is open and someone comes in. One of Vallewida's eyes is swollen shut but the other opens with hope when he looks at the newcomer.
"What's happening here?"
I know this voice. I've heard it today.
"He let her escape, sir. One of the whores, sir."
They blame him for endangering their position. They think he betrayed them choosing a woman over their well-being.
The face I look at is the face I've seen today, only younger. Ellis's eyes are red with lack of sleep and, maybe, alcohol - and I see a sudden spark of thought in them. As if an idea that seems frightening at first becomes more and more tempting, irresistible.
"So, we've lost a whore thanks to him? I think it'll be fair if he takes her place."
It can't be. Ellis can't say that. Ellis… Ellis is his friend.
Everyone is laughing. Of course, because it's just a joke. A joke. And Ellis is smiling, and his face looks like a skull.
"Even I can't pass such a feast."
Vallewida almost doesn't resist when they raise him and throw him face down on the table. He still can't believe it is true. A few pairs of hands deftly pull off his trousers and underwear. Then he tries to break free - but too late.
And there is a whisper in his ear, whisper that imprints into his memory better than pain, than humiliation, than the irreversibility of what's happening.
"I should've done it sooner… It's your own fault… If only you'd been born a woman…"
And the loud voice later:
"He's yours tonight."
And blood, laughter, pain, rope biting into his wrists, floor under his knees, "open your mouth", "too late to play coy", "Ellis's bitch", and his own body betraying him, his mind deserting in weakness… not to see, not to feel, not to know, not to be himself, not to be…
* * *
In the darkness I hear someone's piercing scream. I try to get up, run somewhere - something happens, someone needs help - but there is something blocking my way. The obstacle is warm, hard and alive but it is even scarier like that, I hit it with my hands and feet until both my wrists get caught.
"Guys. Guys. Calm down."
This voice. It dissolves the darkness. Vallewida is sitting on my bed, holding me, clenching my hands - and I hear a thin wail breaking from my throat - the remnants of the cry I heard.
"It's all right, Guys," Vallewida says.
No. Not all right. Never will be. Because I've seen it. If he also sees it…
"I don't want… to be you…" I mumble. Vallewida looks at me in concern, then takes a glass of water and brings it to my lips. Usually the water is for him.
I try to drink but my teeth chatter and the water spills. All my body aches as if I'm beaten all over. I want no one to touch me and at the same time I want Vallewida to never let me go. Fortunately, he makes his own decision - he lies down next to me and presses me tighter. His nightshirt is soaked with his smell, warm and familiar, and comforting. I clasp my hand on the fabric and put my head onto his chest. I want to complain about the nightmare but I know I shouldn't. Let him think I dreamed of something from my prison life.
"You won't go anywhere, will you?" I mutter. It's silly words but I feel Vallewida raise his head and stare at me.
"Guys, why do you ask?"
Because. Because there is Ellis. Because there are ghosts. I don't answer, just press my head to his chest harder.
"I won't go," Vallewida says, "anywhere."
* * *
Next day my eyes smart with lack of sleep - and also because I look through the window all the time to see if Ellis is approaching the store. He'll come again, I'm sure of it - I remember his look yesterday. Like that one looks at a precious thing, lost and found again.
"He's not a thing," I mutter. Vallewida gives me a concerned stare and comes up again, puts his palm on my forehead. He thinks I might have a fever. His hand is light and cool but right now his touch irritates me. I start back angrily.
"I'm not sick! And you know that!"
He looks at me patiently. For the time we're together he's got to know me well: now when I've started, I won't stop until I say it all.
"Don't pretend nothing's happening! Like you're not worried at all! You can't pretend it's all right for you when he… he…"
He. He is Vallewida's past. The reason why Vallewida spent four years between worlds, rejecting his memories and himself. My fists clench. I want to hit Ellis's smug face. I hear my breath come out in heavy puffs.
If something can reach me in my state, it's his voice.
"What "don't"? Why are you doing it? Why are you pretending it's okay for you, that it doesn't hurt - when I know…"
That dream I've seen… I wish I didn't knew.
Vallewida smiles tensely, and I feel ashamed of my words. I remember how bitterly he said that he hadn't had friends to begin with. I remember his dead voice when he told what had been done to him. He doesn't pretend. He just tries to live with it as he can.
"Why did he have to come here," I complain like a naughty child. "Everything was so good!"
"You know," Vallewida says quietly, "maybe I'm even glad that he's come."
I look up at him. What is he saying, has he gone mad?
"Till now I couldn't be sure I'm not hiding any more," he says as if he doesn't even talk to me but to himself. "I couldn't be sure I'd cope if I had to face the past… that I wouldn't choose an easy way. But now I know I can. I can look at him. I can live when he's around."
I'm not sure I'm asking a right question, and I reach for his hand as if looking for a support.
"Have you… forgiven him?"
He laughs shortly.
"I have to forgive him - since I'm a believer, right? But if I forgave him, it would mean I'm ready to accept him as a friend again - otherwise it would be a fake forgiveness. No," he shakes his head and his lips twist in a wry smile. "I can't forgive him."
"It's okay," I say quickly. Let Vallewida be a bad Christian, it's better than forgive Ellis.
"But, in the end, thanks to him I met Guys," Vallewida says thoughtfully. Hmm… then I probably should be grateful to Guildias. For some reason this thought seems very funny. I laugh, and sob, and bury my face against Vallewida's chest.
* * *
It's our day off. The store is closed, and we are on a picnic of sorts. The day is beautiful - it isn't hot but warm and sunny, and I stretch on the blanket in the grass, and Vallewida is standing in front of the easel, drawing tiled roofs of the houses in the valley. He draws beautifully, I think, everything looks alive in his drawings but he thinks they aren't worth anything. "I just enjoy it," he says.
It is very boring to watch how he draws the contours. For a while I am a bit entertained with him forgetting there is coal on his fingers and smearing it on his cheek while pushing his hair back. I think I'll need to wipe his face before we go home.
Then I fall asleep.
I don't have any nightmares. In fact, maybe I'm not even fully asleep because I keep feeling sunlight on my eyelids. And then a voice reaches me.
"You still draw."
I open my eyes. In a few steps away from me, next to Vallewida, there is a man in the uniform. I see his broad back and ideal haircut. I feel sick.
My first impulse is to get up, stand between them, not to let *him* come closer. I have to clench my fists to make myself stay put. In the end, everything goes down to trust and respect. Vallewida said he could deal with it; I need to believe him.
"Sometimes I do," he answers after a pause. His voice is very calm.
I can stay motionless - but I can't stop looking and listening. They don't look back at me, they probably think I'm asleep.
"It suits you," Ellis says. "A pencil and long hair. You never looked like a soldier."
Anger boils in me. He's just come and with his second phrase he tries to insult! I don't hear Vallewida's laughter too often - but, thanks God, such a bitter laughter I had to hear only once or twice in my life. He turns to Ellis - I see his profile, delicate like a girl's, and the strands of his pale hair.
"Do you want me to be grateful to you for showing me my real predestination?"
When Vallewida talked like that to Durer, the man lost control in moments. There was time when I was angry with Vallewida for that - for getting in trouble. It took me many months to realize he was doing it for me, even during that first "session" with Durer when he mentioned his bad taste - it was to distract Durer from me…
"You liked it," Ellis says in a low voice. It sounds so passionate, so intimate that hairs raise on their ends on my arms. "Don't lie that you didn't like it. Not at first… but later…"
He promised to treat him well, I remember. Maybe he really kept his promise. And I want to hit him even worse for it.
Vallewida's voice is level as always but I notice his lips become white.
"You can think whatever pleases you."
This calm voice makes Ellis lose control, it seems. He starts talking - that for four, no, for five years he tried to forget, he got married, he'll be a father soon, he thought he could be happy - and then he was transferred here, to this garrison - and imagine, meeting Vallewida like that, it must be fate, doesn't Vallewida think so, it's their chance to start anew, without past mistakes.
Vallewida listens to him, his head lowered. There is still the smear of coal on his cheek. It's strange that I don't feel jealousy or fear right now - and I used to feel a lot of jealousy and fear before. Now I have a feeling like I'm in a dream, and like in a dream I have no power over what's happening.
Ellis says he looked for him, wanted to help him - why did Vallewida need to escape, to go against Bollanet… he sticks his hand into his breast pocket and pulls out a yellowed sheet of paper.
"It's your drawing, remember it? I kept it for all those years."
Vallewida's face is tilted down and his lips are moving very slightly, soundlessly forming the words. I think Ellis doesn't remember those words but I recognize them immediately.
You should have done it sooner…
My heart is beating like mad.
Then Vallewida reaches out his hand and takes the paper from Ellis. A short bitter smile flickers on his face when he looks at the drawing.
"It's worth nothing," he says. "It's just trash."
He tears the paper and lets it go. The scraps of yellowed paper are carried away by the wind. Ellis makes a helpless gesture, as if trying to catch them but immediately takes hold over himself. His voice sounds loud and distorted:
"Don't play with me! You can't mean you are content with *this* more than with me!"
He suddenly turns and points at me. I forget faking sleep and sit up, blinking in surprise.
"A dumb, filthy street kid who can't even re…"
He doesn't finish. Because Vallewida is right next to him, grabbing his collar, jerking him up to the tiptoes. Oh… I don't know if I've ever seen him so angry. Maybe only when he took me for Bollanet. His voice is seeping contempt.
"Get out of here, Ellis. And never get in my way again. It's you who isn't a real soldier, not me."
After a few moments he lets him go. Ellis straightens out his coat. He tries to look composed but his hands are shaking a bit.
"We'll… we'll talk later," he says and leaves. I watch him go down from the hill until his head and shoulders disappear from my view. Then I look at Vallewida. It seems he's calm again - anger is gone from his eyes, he looks at me with a small smile. I get up and run to him - and right in time because he suddenly sinks on the ground.
I hold him in my arms when he comes round. He looks up guiltily.
"I must've spent too much time in the sun," he says holding his head.
"Yeah," I say. "Let's go home?"
* * *
"Do you want to top tonight?" I ask. It's not such a unique proposal, for this year we have tried changing the roles but in the end we've decided we like the usual way better.
Vallewida lies face down, and I'm touching his vertebrae with the tips of my fingers, jumping over the rough lines of scars on his back.
He turns his head looking at me with one eye through the tousled hair.
"Oh? Lazy tonight, aren't you?"
"Not at all." I pout. I've just wanted… I don't know what I've wanted. But I think Vallewida understands.
"Then I'll pass."
"Your choice," I say.
My fingers follow down, to his spine - and even farther, in an unavoidable way to the planned destination. Vallewida squirms - as many times as I watch his reaction to my touches, I'm never tired of it. I go red remembering how a few days ago I was so carried away playing with his anus that started doing it with my tongue. Maybe… maybe I'll do it again some day. But tonight I want it another way.
"Turn over," I say. He obediently turns over onto his back. I kiss his lips, hard, almost painfully. Tonight I want to see his face when taking him.
And I look at him, I see the light twinge going over his face when I enter him. Then his eyes mist with pleasure. His mouth is half-open, and his small soft sighs - "aah, aah" - fill me with delight, and his body strives towards my pushes, faster and faster. I push his hair away from his ear and whisper a mixture of stupid and indecent things that for some reason always come to my mind at such moments. And he flushes, and his soft sighs turn into:
He cries out my name, and I kiss it off his lips. Let it be like that forever, I pray, let him never have to say another name at such moments.
I want to be with him for all our lives. But this desire I have, this decision I make - they are not enough. It's something one has to fight for every day, and it won't always be easy, there will be other things that will trouble or hurt us. But we've come to this point together - we can go together from now on, too.