This is Issue #15 of DeathWatch, an ongoing Serial. Click that link to go find ‘A Beginning’ and read from there, if you need to catch up.
* * *
Sometimes it was quick.
Kieron opened his eyes and looked down; this body was in a tub full of hot red copper wine. His senses were dulled by something, heat or herbs or drink, but he could still feel the faint sting of the impossibly deep cuts at his thighs, and a dull fire between them, a bass-pounding-throb he couldn’t place. The water felt hot and cold all at once. He glanced down at himself, half-fascinated by the naked form he inhabited; every time he was a woman, it was jarring rather than distressing — this was him, but was not him, all at once.
He turned his head sluggishly, feeling the room sway and spin. He could see himself in a mirror near the tub’s edge — he was gorgeous, but badly beaten. He settled further into the body and uttered a low cry of pain, then bit his lips and laid still, knowing it would be over soon. It would all be over soon. He slumped back and felt his heart slowing, his eyelids getting heavy, and waited for the blackred behind his eyes to swallow him whole, and take him away.
It was like falling to sleep.
He hoped she didn’t have family to find her that way, whoever she was.
* * *
Kieron jolted back to the world, and picked up where he left off, handing out the book, finishing the sentence with a thready voice, “–while then maybe you shouldn’t leave this here–” He paced that last step forward on fawn-legs, a cold sweat sheening his forehead. He could tell it had been short, otherwise, he’d have been on the floor already, but the whole world was swimming.
Dissolving. Something exploded behind his eyes — poppies. He could see them, red and black, blossoming in profusion.
He felt the nausea roll over him, and he gritted his teeth against it, insistent. Not this time. I won’t. I can just lie. I was dizzy, that’s all. He held back as long as he could, but then the world greyed out.
“Brody?” Garrett murmured, looking concerned, one hand reaching for the book. The concern turned to horror as Kieron’s eyes rolled back in his head.
Ellison shouted for his wife as Kieron pitched forward, boneless.
Garrett dropped the book and caught the boy in his arms, saying, “He’s burning up–“
* * *
At some point, Kieron felt the soothing heat of a damp wash rag against his face. Someone carefully washed him, gently caressing his cheeks and eyes, wiping his lips. The gentleness of it was aching, and Kieron’s hand reached out, grabbing for the hand holding the cloth. His fingers closed over a thin wrist, and he mumbled, “I love you,” and was lost again.
* * *
When Jet was admitted to Garrett’s quarters, the older man seemed to have only recently returned; his boots were still snowy, by the fire, and his cheeks were still flushed. “Keep your letter,” Garrett said, looking exhausted as he handed over the letter that Kieron had sent with him. “I won’t be able to take another.”
A chill settled through Jet; he clutched Kieron’s tightly against him, and stared at Garrett in growing unease. “What’s happened?” he asked, shifting his weight from foot to foot.
“He is truly ill. The doctor’s believe it is a wasting fever,” Garrett explained. “I had thought he was having one of his fits, but instead of sicking up, as he’d done, he fainted in a delirium fever. He hasn’t waked, and his skin is like fire to the touch.”
Jet’s breath left him in a rush. He sat down, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. He had nearly died of the wasting fever, the year before he had met Kieron. In the end, what had saved him was an accident — the woman who had been attending him had fallen asleep in the drowsy heat of the room where he had slept, and he had wandered in his delirium, out into the winter, into the snow, in only his bedclothes. The chill had kept the fever from killing him, and his body finally cleared the sickness. When asked later, where he had been going, when they found him in the snow, he had explained that he had told the winter he was too hot, and the snow had promised to save him, so he went out to greet it. If he’d stayed indoors, in the heat of his blankets, the fever would have killed him outright.
“They believe it contagious, and have quarantined the house,” Garrett was saying.
That roused Jet again, and he said, “They let you leave?”
“My blood was tested. I did not catch it, or I would not have come back here,” Garrett says easily enough.
“Are they treating him?” Jet wondered. “Do they know not to let the fever run?” he asked, looking worried.
“I assume the doctors–” Garrett began.
“To hell with the doctors!” Jet snapped, looking panicked. “Will he wake?” Jet asked, his breath so tight in his chest it felt as if someone had reached in to clutch their hands around his lungs. His heart was a lead weight in his chest, cold and heavy. “Professor, will he wake?” Jet whispered, tears stinging his eyes.
Garrett did not answer, and Jet’s shoulders slumped. He clutched the letters to his chest, struggling to keep his pain to himself, and got up to leave.
Neither of them attempted to wish the other a happy holiday.
Jet took both letters back to his dormitory with a heavy heart; he would be picked up by his parents tomorrow morning — he would be closer to Kieron than he had in months. If Kieron survived.
* * *
…left, left, right, and that will take you to a maze exit that will lead to the wing where my window is. Come any night. My parents retire after eight bells. I cannot believe how soon it might be, my friend…
“Be well,” Jet whispered, reading aloud the last words of the last letter Garrett had been able to deliver to him, his voice cracking. He read the letter, again and again, committing the directions through the hedge maze to memory. On the night he was to go, his parents had a holiday function to attend, one to which he was not expected. Once he’d assured them (for the thousandth time) that they could leave him alone and he would not be lonesome, he waited until their carriage had disappeared in the snow, and he ran out the back, with an empty knapsack.
Over sparkling moonlit field and crackling stream he flew, running as though he could take wing to get to Kieron quicker. He used the instructions given to him, slipping onto the grounds and into the tall maze, then back out, against the ivy-covered house, his breath fogging in the night. The house was mostly dark; only guards and servants would be about.
No one would be in Kieron’s room — they would not want to get ill.
He stared up at the window for awhile making certain it was dark, and then filled his knapsack to the brim with snow, carefully packing it in. Once he had as much as he could carry, he carefully climbed the brick, pulled himself up with drain pipe and shutter ledge, rough brick edges and years-old vines that had not yet been cut back, until he made it to the window-ledge, and could press his palms to the panes. He pressed upward, and the window slid open, letting out an exhale of feverheat. Jet let himself in, and left the window open, then let his eyes adjust to the dark.
When his vision resolved, he could see Kieron in the bed, pale and still, and Jet held his breath for long moments as he stood over Kieron, watching. He reached down with bare fingers, and laid them to Kieron’s cheek. The cool of them roused something in Kieron; he shifted, muttering, and his breathing grew ragged. Jet shucked off his jacket and knapsack, his boots and extra layers, and peeled away the heavy blankets, exposing Kieron to the cold night air that came in from the wintry outside. Only a thin sheet was left against him, and atop that, Jet poured the snow from his knapsack over Kieron’s chest and belly. Heavy and cold, it began to melt.
Jet threw open the other windows in the room, drew back the curtains, and made sure the fire was out — the room grew chilled quickly, and in the bed, Kieron shivered, gasping against the cold. Jet climbed into the bed, then, and laid his cold hands against Kieron’s face and neck, exhausted as he curled near, waiting it out.
“I have you, Key,” he promised. “I have you.”
* * *
When Ellison Brody woke early with the sun to check in on his boy, he felt a dull ache in his heart, and wondered if that was the way each waking would feel, if his son died. He opened the door to his son’s room and felt the frigid draft that meant the windows had been left open, and he mentally resolved to both terminate and execute the nightservant who’d failed to check the latches. He rushed to close them, his heart in his throat, and could not turn back to look at his little boy, not yet, fearing he would see him hollow-eyed and blue-lipped. When he did turn back, what he saw brought down a shade of red over his eyes — he remembered two long steps to his son’s bed, and then he grabbed hold of Jet by his hair, and hauled him from the sheets, teeth bared in rage. Then all was red and white, fury and hatred.
When Kieron next woke, it was because he could hear people screaming. The waking world was in his room, invading, loud and hateful, pulling him away from a dream wherein Jet was with him, where Jet had saved him from a fire that was consuming the world. He felt wet and heavy, confused. He opened his eyes, and thought he might still be dreaming — Jet was there, in his room. He rubbed his eyes and struggled to focus — and it was Jet, still, but bent grotesquely in agony, one arm twisted sharply behind his back and lifted high, ribs exposed, heaving as he gasped for breath, struggling in Ellison’s arms, pleading, his eyes wide, a runnel of blood pouring from a split lip.
Kieron’s mother came in, and saw that Kieron was awake — she pulled him into her arms, weeping with joy. “Ellison! ELLISON!” Delia begged. “The fever broke!” she sobbed, rocking with Kieron.
Kieron, however, could see his father was not himself; he pulled an arm back, ready to strike, his hand balling into a fist. It all was happening too fast; Kieron tore himself from his mother’s arms in fear for Jet. He threw himself between his father and his friend, but his father’s fist was already sent — the punch caught Kieron squarely in the jaw; he sagged back against Jet, spitting blood.
Jet, having been released once Ellison realized what he’d done, reacted on instinct, protective of the boy he’d saved last night. He snarled, launching himself at Kieron’s father, and dropped him to the floor, putting his arm over Ellison’s throat. When Jet regained control of himself, he pulled his arm away, horrified at his actions, and began to stammer a humiliated apology.
It was then that guards came in, and all Kieron could do from where he’d been knocked to the floor, dizzied, was watch in breathless terror as the guards hauled Jet from where he had straddled Ellison. They held him up, wrenching his arms again, and pressed their belt knives to his throat to subdue him.
Jet struggled at first, breathing through clenched teeth, the cords on his neck standing out, but in realizing there was no escape, he finally went still, panting, shivering, his eyes wide, feeling the cold steel against his skin. He swallowed against the blades and called out, “Key?”
“I’m here,” Kieron rasped, getting up off the floor, his mother hovering around him. “I’m all right. I’m all right–” He gently batted away his mother’s frantic hands, and got himself up. Once he was standing, he pointed a finger at the guards and said, “Let him go. Now.” The guards did so, and Jet immediately went not to Kieron’s side but to Ellison’s, offering him a hand. “Master Brody, I am so, so very sorry,” he said. “Please, forgive–“
Ellison did not take Jet’s hand, but stood, a disgusted look on his face as he took in the sight of both boys, bare chested, soaked from the melted snow. “Get him out of my house,” Ellison spat in Jet’s direction.
The boy recoiled, but didn’t defend himself, crushed. He looked to Kieron as the guards grabbed him and his things, and hauled him toward the door out of the bedroom, none too gently.
“Father, wait, no!” Kieron cried, reaching for Jet. The guards dragged Jet out of the room, down the stairs; he could be heard to struggle and shout, furious and humiliated.
“Don’t you start!” Ellison howled. “You told me you ended this!” he said, jabbing a finger at Kieron. “No wonder you weren’t getting better! No wonder you’re still sick!”
“I’m not sick!” Kieron shouted. “Look at me! I’m perfectly well! The fever has broken! I–“
“I’m not talking about the fever!” Ellison’s anger was white-hot. He could only shout to express the purity of his rage. “I’m talking about the sickness in your head, boy! I’m talking about the sickness in the root of you, the one that’s got you confused about–” He stopped, unable to articulate himself, and simply gestured rudely at Jet’s disappearing form.
Kieron’s own ire grew, a slow burn that began to match Ellison’s. “That,” he growled, “is the only thing that isn’t confusing.”
“He will ruin you!” Ellison shouted.
“I don’t care!” Kieron answered, in the way that only the young and reckless can. “I love him!”
* * *