A crunch of tall wheatgrass, pussy willows and ferns heralded Darius's return from a quick reconnaissance up ahead.
"We're stopping here tonight," he said when he was in earshot.
Ryou had sunk down onto a rain-wet rock near the large stream they'd discovered ten minutes ago. He moved the worn-down stumps of what had once been his legs and said, "I can still go on." Hopefully that was true. It had to be true, Ryou grimly reminded himself; this was only the second day they were walking, who knew how far they had yet to go.
"No, here's good enough. We need some rest." Darius peeled up his sweatshirt and looked at the bandages, wrinkled and sagging around his middle, with some concern. "We won't be able to follow this waterway up ahead, there's too much underbrush. Let's take advantage of the water here."
"Advantage?" Ryou asked blankly, most of his mind on Darius' injuries and what they would do if they got infected. He noted the sweatshirt and shoes dropping to ground near Darius's pack at the edge of the stream, but the significance of it did not penetrate until Darius was removing the jogging pants.
"What are you doing?" Ryou asked, and was faintly impressed with himself for the steady and not-at-all-hysterical tone of the question.
"Bathing. You too, Inlander. I still stink of the unguents they used back in that sick-house. That and the sweat will attract blackfly and worse. We don’t need that while injured." The words were followed by a splish splash louder than the background gurgle and rustle of the brook.
"Don't get your bandages wet," Ryou said, examining his shoes (there was a sprung seam at the sole that would soon break).
"I'm taking them off. I'm better now, the sigils of blessed Hygiea are doing their work. And dirty as these wrappings are, they'll be worse than nothing."
Ryou was going to object, but his eyes had jumped to where Darius was unwinding the strips of gauze and tape, and had stuck there.
The water had dug a crooked path between outcroppings of clay and rock in the moorlands. Edged in mossy slate, it was only knee-deep. Darius, back turned towards Ryou, had gone down on one knee to splash water over himself. He leaned down to wash his face and scrub and rinse his hair in the current, then he rummaged the bottom of the riverbed, raising a cloud of sand and mud. He stood up with a small flat stone in his hand, and proceeded to scrape lightly at his skin. He was either tanned uniformly or else that pale bronze color was his original skin tone.
As he moved, lifted his arm, reached behind his back, wiry muscles without the faintest hint of fat coiled over a body built like a battering ram. Darius didn't look like those sculpted men Ryou affected not to notice in the magazines racked over the vendor's head. This body was entirely functional and nobody who looked at him would doubt he could drive a sword through compacted trash or overpower a policeman. Ryou could see the edge of his injuries, red and a little puffy; on their way to becoming one of several other scars decorating that bronze skin.
Darius knelt once more to sluice water over his shoulders and down his front. Ryou was distantly aware that his mouth was dry and that he couldn't swallow right now to save his life. Darius's body might not be that of a magazine model, but its solid practicality and the undercurrent of power and lethality was an extension of its owner's self. It was like seeing him revealed in more ways than even nakedness could achieve.
Darius stood back up and chased the excess water down his arms and back with his palms. Ryou's eyes traveled up once again, from the firm, hard lines of the legs up to the arch of the muscled back, the shoulders turned a bit in the light of the late afternoon sun dancing off water-
Darius was looking over his shoulder straight at Ryou with an enigmatic expression on his face.
It would have made it look even worse to jerk his gaze away at this point, worse by far to say anything that sounded like an excuse, so Ryou stared straight back, face a mask. Show them nothing.
Darius looked like he was waiting for something. Then he ran a hand down his hair, wringing it out.
"In Ras Dal Aran, they'd stone you for looking at me like that," he stated.
Ryou said nothing, showed nothing.
Darius stared at him some more, then he smiled. It was crooked and far from reassuring. "Which is better than Caroligian, where they whip sodomites to death after castration." The dark eyes turned inwards for a moment. "Or is that somewhere else..."
Darius turned and waded towards Ryou. Ryou was well aware that physically he was outclassed, even factoring in Darius's injuries. Better stay calm.
"In the Imperium, however, they'll screw anyone or anything, and eyeing a man in the public baths is pretty much the norm," said Darius, stepping onto the slate of the river's edge two meters away from Ryou. "In Jiroh they'll jail you for twelve days if they find you out, though they don't look too hard. While in most free states, it's a sign of virility for any self-respecting citizen to have had a young man as a lover by the time he's middle aged."
He was standing there, gloriously naked, looking over at Ryou. Ryou, for his part, kept up that eye contact with no more emotion than if they were talking about the weather.
"And of course there's far-off Tula, where I hear they'll cut you and feed your dick and entrails to the dogs while you're still alive."
Ryou nodded as if he already knew that. Darius's lips grew ever so faintly pinched.
"Got anything to say for yourself, Inlander?" he finally asked, eyebrows arched.
"Nothing, other than it just occurred to me that I never asked you where you came from," Ryou countered in the same vein, certain now he was being baited.
Silence. Darius scratched his chin, mouth twisting beneath the cover of his hand, and then he gave up and laughed. "I swear, Ryou, I've known marble statues that were easier to read. I've never seen anyone like you before. You're like those Broken Lands. I could punch you just by reaching over, but you're a mile away anyways. Ease your mind, I'm from Assyria," he added, drying off briskly with his sweatshirt. "In my country, it's- that is, it used to be common. Back in the old days, it was a thing of admiration to vow oneself to a brother, a fellow swordbearer, to hold him higher than your women, your family, or anyone except your country. Our great warriors were often paired like that. They died side by side on the battlefield and were honored together in the tales. The Ionian and Persian states we joined to our nation certainly didn't change that. But now, with the backlash of years of Imperial occupation, it's seen as being a little too Roman, if you know what I mean."
The word 'Roman' tumbled all the way down the list of Ryou's facts without managing to connect to any of them.
"-but hell, with all the Free City fighters and Boeotians and such in our army, at the end, it doesn't matter. As long as a man doesn't flaunt it and acts like a man..." Darius laughed again, this time an ugly snicker that made Ryou's small hairs stand up. But Darius wasn't looking at him. "Never mind. I was thinking of somebody else."
"...Did you say Roman?"
Darius was examining his wound, two long gashes of puckered red flesh with black sutures. "Yeah. As long as you don't start acting like a eunuch or some goddamned woman, we'll be fine. What's it like in your country?"
"What? Oh, you mean...that. It's not punishable, but we stay, ah, we stay discreet." An ugly memory made Ryou look down at his shoes. He was peripherally aware of Darius moving to a nearby clump of tall bushes, and felt obligated to add, "I apologize if I offended you earlier, but don’t trouble yourself further about my orientation. It doesn't concern you."
Darius paused in the act of twisting a long branch from the thicket. "Doesn't concern me?" He gave Ryou a narrow-eyed look. "You're not a boy-lover, are you?"
"A boy- no! No. You're not really my type, that's all I meant. But otherwise I prefer partners my own age," Ryou said, then the back of his brain registered some amazement at having said that at all to someone he barely knew. Though he supposed it was true. He'd never really thought about it; it'd been years since he'd had a choice in partners, while in Shore he chose those who looked the most discreet and who made him feel a little less like a customer. But the few men he'd been attracted to, the even fewer he'd actually had a relationship with, were men much like himself: intellectual rather than athletic, quiet, reserved. Ryou didn't think he was attracted to dangerous sword-wielding foreigners, and he was pretty certain it would be hazardous to his health if he was.
"That's okay then." Darius' lips curled into a smirk. "But you were sure getting an eyeful of someone who wasn't catching your interest."
"I was concerned about your injury," Ryou said, mostly truthfully.
"Really? I didn't think my thighs were injured." Darius stripped off the bark from the branch with one long, slow yank, eyes riveted on Ryou's.
Ryou returned that stare without the slightest hint of feeling, which even he thought was pretty impressive.
Darius finally shook his head and gave Ryou a grin full of teeth. "You're no fun to tease, magian. But you wait, I'll find a way of getting a rise out of you yet. Come on, hop into the water, you're filthy. I'm going to catch us dinner, if the fish around here are dumb enough to bite." Darius hefted the branch in one hand and some bared copper electrical wire in the other, something else he'd cannibalized from the rental car.
Ryou had to concede that he could do with a clean-up. He bullied his stiffening body into motion and went to sit by the river. The air felt even colder than it had any rights to be once he took off his coat and jacket. His shirt had once been white; it was now a splotchy cream decorated with sweat, grass stains, ash and dirt. Ryou thought of Sasaki, who always kept some of Ryou's spare clothes around to come to his boss's aid in case of coffee spills. Ryou wondered what his assistant would think of this shirt, and it almost made him smile.
Ryou managed to get his shoes, socks and pants off without letting his feet touch ground. Then he took off his underwear, telling himself this was no different than a trip to a hot spring. Not that he'd been to a hot spring for quite a while, and never with a man who knew his inclinations before...
Another difference was the temperature of the water. It was ten degrees, if that, and it felt like an electric shock when he dipped his worn feet into it. Ryou kept them away from the muddy, rocky bottom of the water, and just hoped he was not the one who'd get an infection. Not something he could worry about now...He leaned forward to cup some water into his hands, watching the skin go pale from the cold, and then splashed it over his chest and started to rub. It wasn't quite as bad as he feared, though now the faint late afternoon breeze came wielding knives.
...Ryou turned his head, instincts prickling, to find Darius looking him over. The other man, still naked, had seated himself on a rocky ledge three meters upstream. He'd tied a thick thorn to the end of the wire, and was now reinforcing the other end tied around the branch with strips of car seat. But his eyes were on Ryou.
"Will you be able to catch any fish with both of us splashing around here?" Ryou asked, forbidding himself the slightest hint of discomfort. It wasn't as if he could object after his earlier exhibit.
"Hell no, not for another hour. When evening falls, if I'm lucky." There was an odd little smile on the corner of Darius's mouth.
"Then what are you doing there?"
"Resting. Preparing. Otherwise, just enjoying." The direction of his gaze and his tone left no doubt in mind what it was he was enjoying.
Ryou sighed. "You don't have to get a rise out of me, you know."
"Is that what I'm doing?" asked Darius almost dreamily.
Ryou looked around again. Really looked this time, without any preconceptions about this being a joke.
...In Ryou's view of the world, men had always been either predominantly straight (though occasionally willing to make exceptions) or flamboyantly gay, with a few non-descript camouflaged specimens like himself halfway between. But he'd become aware these past few years of visiting Shore that there were, in fact, other types; he was just appallingly bad at recognizing them, and it appeared this had come back to bite him once again.
It was like a trickle of the cold water dripped down Ryou's back. He looked away instinctively, but that made him feel too awkward and vulnerable, and he had to look back.
"Ah, I thought you said-..." The look was so unequivocal that he didn't need to work his way up to the subject, but beyond that words ran out on him.
"Hmm?" That gaze went back up to Ryou's face, taking the scenic route. "I told you I'm from Assyria. It's no crime there."
"You said it was too Roman," Ryou countered, mouth dry.
"Huh-uh. But then again, I'm half Roman." Darius's smile was getting a little feral.
"You might have mentioned that before," Ryou said, a weak comeback he wouldn't have bothered with if he hadn't been trying to hide his uncertainty at where this seemed to be going.
It seemed to hit home harder than expected; the corner smile slipped, and darkness touched Darius's eyes, there and gone again. "Yeah, there's a lot more about me I should be mentioning, and Inder knows I've never dissembled in my life, but...I rather like the way you've looked at me until now. It doesn't seem to matter much out here, right? Who we were back in our homelands?" Darius's gaze wandered around the sweeps of empty plains broken into their crazy jigsaw pattern in the sky. Then he looked once more at Ryou and his sudden smile was downright evil.
He dropped the fishing rod and let himself slip into the water. Ryou froze like a deer in headlights as Darius waded towards him, not sure what to do - no, more deeply that that, not sure what he wanted. What does it matter what we do, nobody will ever know- but this is not one of those grubby moments at Shore, he's a- a friend- of sorts - and to start with, I prefer to be the one to initiate-
"Still unreadable, huh?" said Darius as he reached Ryou. He leaned forward, a hand curving beneath one of Ryou's knees. "I’ve been intending to do this all day. Sorry, Ryou, but this is going to hurt."
Ryou's mouth was open, around a question or an objection or consent, he still couldn't say-
Darius picked up Ryou's left leg, hoisted up the foot and started massaging and scrubbing the sole in the water.
A whimper escaped him, but then Ryou bit his lip and endured.
"I wonder what was going through your mind right then." Darius's faint smile suggested he damn well knew. "You don't need to be troubled either," he added, examining a ruptured and encrusted blister. "You're easy to look at, and these past seven years I've chosen to lie down with men rather than women when I've had the choice, but it'd be poor repayment for what you've done for me. I said I can't promise to get you home, but I can keep you from getting further entangled in my life. Not that you're all that grateful right this second, I bet."
"I guess I did have to clean them out," Ryou answered, the wavering wince in his voice belying his words.
"Yeah. Okay, this one's not too bad," Darius added, checking the right foot. "I saw you favoring the other."
Darius reached past him, close enough where Ryou could have leaned forward and leaned his head against that hard chest. Ryou stared blankly at the water over Darius's shoulder. It seemed nothing was going to happen, and he still hadn't figured out how he would have felt about it if it had.
Then he realized Darius had lifted his foot again and was measuring it against the sneaker he'd picked up.
"What are you doing?"
"You have really small, narrow feet, you know that? Like a woman. It's funny, since other than that, you're man enough." This was said in reference to the rest of Ryou's body and with a specific glance at a part of his anatomy that Ryou was not used to having people comment on after only a short acquaintance. But the words and the look were so casual that Darius could have been talking about Ryou's choice of business suits. It seemed people from Assyria had different standards of what was acceptable in a conversation.
"Thank you," said Ryou, with just the right degree of faint sarcasm to make the corner of Darius's mouth twitch upwards in a gesture that was somehow, after only two days, starting to feel familiar. "And this is in aid of?"
"You're wearing these shoes tomorrow. I can cut them further and tighten the straps to make them fit."
"But what will you wear?" Ryou asked, caught short.
"I'll go barefoot," was the answer, equally surprised.
"You can't possibly do that, your feet will be just as bad as mine."
Darius looked mystified. "I hardly wore shoes at all until I was fifteen, and I can still race ten miles over sand and wrestle as naked as a boy when I want to. And this is grassland, not rock. You truly have been wearing shoes all this time? I mean, since you were a child? Even though your roads are so smooth and flat?"
"Huh," said Darius as if contemplating some great oddity. Then he shook himself and gave Ryou that smile full of edges that was also beginning to feel familiar. "If you were one of my soldiers, some rookie who'd never marched behind anything other than his mother's goats, I'd have you stand sentry all night to toughen you up. Then I'd have you walk all day again. As it is, I don't think that'll work too well with you. So you're going to let your feet rest without bindings tonight and use my shoes tomorrow, because otherwise I will have to leave you behind to die from a case of footrot, and that will make me feel like an ungrateful cur. I don't like feeling like an ungrateful cur. It puts me in a bad mood. So you'll wear these and not argue."
Ryou decided not to argue.
Darius washed their clothes and let them dry on the branches of the thicket. He threw the car seat over a shivering Ryou when the breeze had dried the latter off to merely damp, but Darius himself walked around naked as if he did this often, and by the sound of it, he did.
They didn't catch any fish, so they went to bed hungry, lying together beneath the car seat cover, naked and with no embarrassment on Darius's part (Ryou's feelings were still too complicated, and he was glad of the way sleep took him to oblivion within minutes once more). It turned out Darius had set snares while looking for firewood earlier, and he did manage to catch a young, skinny rabbit during the night. He hung it from his pack the next morning; it swung there like a pitiful scrap of fur while Darius walked. Ryou followed as if hypnotized.
The rabbit looked even skinnier that night, roasting over the fire. Ryou's legs were still sore, and his feet had found new places to blister, but overall they were not getting worse. Darius mentioned they'd gone further that day, and looked pleased.