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by shalott

"I had a wife," Ducard said. "She was taken from me."

Taken. Yes, the right word for a loss with the hand of men and not the hand of God behind it: criminal and brutal and a thousand times more unbearable than disease or cancer or accident, because someone had chosen. Someone had reached out and said, yes, I want this, and squeezed light out of the world like juice from a ripe fruit, to run between his fingers dripping and gone. Ducard's face was wounded, open like the wet red slash of a knife, mouth soft with misery: a day, a month, a year, a decade; pain with no expiration date.

Bruce reached out his hand and cupped Ducard's face. The gesture was involuntary. He didn't mean it as comfort—there was no comfort for this, no solace smaller than a final victory in their mutual war. It was only recognition, the way a man might reach out to touch a mirror and trace the lines of his own face. These here drawn by the first shock of pain; these the marks of long nights spent clenching on tears; these the tightness around the mouth from smiling false reassurance at well-meaning friends.

Ducard didn't pull away. He wasn't looking at Bruce at all. His eyes were on a more distant shore, somewhere on the other side of the fire. The corner of his mouth was soft under Bruce's thumb, and his skin warm, even the tears when they came. Ducard put his own hand over Bruce's after a little while and held it there close against the skin. When the tears had dried he took it and turned his face to press a kiss into the palm: a brother's kiss, recognition given back again.

"You are wrong, you know," Ducard said unexpectedly, a week later. "There is comfort to be found and even, on occasion, joy. Peace alone is denied us." While he spoke, his hands carefully unscrolled a bandage around Bruce's torso to secure the ribs he had just cracked.

"I've tried," Bruce said, shortly, still breathing in shallow gasps. Alcohol, drugs, sex, thrills; he hadn't avoided those snares through his own strength, only from their weakness: none of them anywhere near enough.

"No, no," Ducard said, "I am not speaking of anaesthesia."

He said nothing more then, but the next morning, Bruce came abruptly to consciousness: Ducard standing over his bed, little more than a shadow in the grey room, still dark. He led Bruce up the mountain, over the black rock and the killing knife-edge slopes of the ice fields, putting hooks into the frozen ground to secure a rope-line which he did not use, sure and steady in his nailed boots. Bruce kept a wary hand on the line and followed him, eyes always on Ducard's back, the place between the shoulders that would telegraph a shift in weight, the angle of the hips that would give him the only warning of a sudden turn.

The strike never came; Ducard only led Bruce out onto a ledge near the summit and pushed him out to the edge. "Look," he said. Bruce stood silently. Below the mists curled away and the dawn stained the ice fields riotous pink, and the sunlight poured golden onto his cold face, his cheeks, his lips, melting the gathered snow off his brows and lashes.

"Remain as long as you wish," Ducard said quietly behind him, withdrawing. "We will do no work today."

Bruce blindly put out a hand to stop him. "Stay," he said.

Before they went back to the house, Ducard gathered icicles in his hands from the overhang: great jagged milky shards with blue shadows deep inside. He took Bruce upstairs to his small attic room and made them tea with his own hands, melting the ice in an iron kettle over the fire, measuring out the curled sage-green leaves as carefully as explosives, closing his eyes over the cup and breathing deep. Bruce drew in the fragile scent, like pressed flowers found in the pages of an old book, an album full of black and white and sepia photographs, his mother's long fingers touching one and then another, whispering their stories to him.

He looked up. Ducard's eyes were still closed, his big hands curled around the warmth of the teacup, lips parted. Not peaceful; even now his face had not lost any of that fierce quality, but there was a gentling of the hawk-lines, a softening. He opened his eyes and met Bruce's gaze, mouth curving a little, and Bruce found his breath quickening, even before Ducard said, "It is good to remember that the world holds the sweet as well as the bitter. Will you come to bed with me?"

They shed clothing like water and pulled the bed in front of the fire, naked bodies glowing red in the light as they climbed upon the heap of bedclothes, sheets and blankets and soft sable furs. There was no wrestling or struggle; Bruce turned over willingly for the touch of Ducard's mouth along his shoulderblades, the scrape of beard against his neck, the press inside, slow but steady, with no concessions to fear. They moved together, ebb and flow, Bruce pushing upwards against their joined weight, burn in his arms and shoulders like an exercise, sweat streaming off his skin.

Ducard's thighs were heavy and warm, pressed against Bruce's legs, and his hands slid easily over Bruce's slick skin, cupping tenderly around cock and balls, skillful fingers teasing at the humid sticky creases between; but better still was the panting, ragged edge to his breathing, the half-clumsy sucking kisses pressed almost roughly to nape and shoulders and the arched curve of spine, and the low, shuddering—"Ah," Ducard said, drawn out of him on a breath, and Bruce let the last long thrust drive him deep into the bed, into release.

They lay a while together, not sleeping; strange to have another body in the bed, the weight of Ducard's arm around his waist; strange to be warm through to the bone after years of self-imposed prisons, of isolation. He watched the fire: the trails of smoke creeping up over the mantel, climbing the wall to escape through the blackened slats of the roof; the logs slowly collapsing into soft grey heaps of ashes. The sun threw a final gleam through the windows and vanished; the room sank into darkness.

"Come," Ducard said. "Now we climb the mountain again. Without the line."

= End =

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