Good King Lyr: Beautiful and Dangerous
Beautiful and Dangerous
He woke with Barenin's arm still draped over him, and he didn't give himself time to think. He rolled over and pressed his lips to theirs, feeling their answering pressure. Then he kissed their neck and they shifted, unfastening their robe. They hadn't been asleep. Aezthena rarely slept.
Their skin was cold enough that he shivered again, but his body was ablaze. Barenin's movements held no passion but unspeakable grace and care. And...gods.
After, Anais lay beside Barenin, his body humming in a way he wasn't sure it ever had. Sweat clung his hair to his forehead. Thoughts drifted like lazy clouds, like motes in a crowded station thoroughfare. Warm and light and so very real.
Barenin did not sweat. They watched him with their golden eyes, the flecks shifting in slow, swirling patterns. They didn't smile. But their arm rested on his. Skin on skin. Remembered contact. Present touch.
That was beautiful, they said, their thought carrying over to him on a wave of something he translated as deep contentment. A balancing of unsteady variables.
You are beautiful, he wanted to say, but didn't. His heart was hammering again. Because it was hitting him now that he'd just slept with Barenin Lyr, and he was on their ship, and they'd scarred spacetime and hidden a planet, and there may or may not be Aezthena coming after them. And he had just made love to Barenin Lyr. And while he didn't think they were fully in love with him yet, and while he didn't think he was fully in love with them yet, either, they'd both come closer to that traitorous vulnerability.
Sela's words came back to him, sharp as knives. "It's what they do, child. Barenin sacrifices what they love for what they think is the good of all. They think they're only sacrificing their own needs. They think they're doing this for your own good. They care for you, and they know this will poison that. They sent you here anyway. Barenin thinks losing their happiness is a small price to pay, that you will be better off without them."
They hadn't yet talked about what had happened at Denz Dayar. What had happened with Anais on the ship, and Sela.
Barenin withdrew their arm, breaking their most immediate connection. Had they heard Sela's words in his thoughts, or felt the sentiment behind them? They'd felt Anais' own conflict, certainly.
He stifled a groan and reached for their hand. "Barenin—"
They sat up, then disappeared, reappearing at the end of the bed already dressed, their silver hair loose but now combed.
The distance between them, that impassable gulf, was back.
A hot lump rose in Anais' throat. No, no, no. Barenin couldn't shut him out now. Not now. Not after this moment of culmination. Of such vulnerable synchronicity.
After his choice. After knowing he would stay. That he had to. That Barenin, maybe, was good for him in a way that no one else could be.
He'd known, through every moment they'd made love, that Barenin was seeing the images in his mind. How he really saw himself. How he wished he could be, but knew would tear down too much of the persona he'd built up for himself to change. Barenin knew everything about him. And they'd kissed him just as fiercely.
Barenin glanced at him, then left the sleeping cabin, orange perfume lingering.
"Barenin!" He shoved off the covers and reached for his discarded clothes, pulling them on in quick, vicious tugs. He shivered in the cold as he dressed. Barenin kept the ship cooler than he liked. In all their concessions to him—changing the ship, taking pains to speak out loud rather than non-verbally, here in their own environment—they hadn't made that one for his comfort. Maybe that was for them. Or maybe it was another signal, another damned message they were trying to send that he shouldn't be here. That they were too different to be together.
But then why had they slept with him? Why had they wanted to—and Barenin had definitely wanted that as much as he had.
"Barenin, don't shut me out. Please!" He aimed the thought at them as hard as he yelled it, and he knew they'd hear it.
It's what they do, child. Barenin sacrifices what they love for what they think is the good of all. Anais tried to shove away the memory of Sela's words. Barenin thinks losing their happiness is a small price to pay, that you will be better off without them.
"Barenin!" he heard the note of desperation in his voice as he skidded into the corridor. Had they gone to the bridge?
An image flashed in his thoughts of the observation longue. An invitation, but it had no emotion behind it.
Damn it, Barenin. Why were they shutting him out now? Had they been as comfortable as they'd seemed with what he'd revealed about himself? About...what he kept buried? Had it been his self imagery during—were they disgusted with him after all?
His cheeks burned and his eyes burned and he just barely kept himself from running to the observation deck.
Had this been a dalliance? Had they just used him and would now discard him? Had he bared his deepest secrets and now Barenin would leave him to pick up the pieces?
He deserved it, after all. It's what he'd done to so many others, so many times. He deserved to be discarded.
He broke into a run just before the observation lounge and barreled through the hatch as it slid silently aside. Then he skidded to a stop, panting, bare feet cold on the corrugated metal deck. There was no carpet in the observation lounge. No furniture except for a long, low couch that curved around the room, facing the huge window at the fore of the ship.
Except, the windows weren't showing what he'd thought was outside the ship. That should be the white-blue streaks of Kaireyeh, dizzying to any human observer. Instead, the windows showed a planetary system with a nearby red gas giant, the background full of unrealistically-colored wisps and clouds of a nebula.
Anais stared at it, baffled and derailed. A holographic projection. It had to be.
Barenin stood with their hands clasped behind them, back stiff, staring out at the projected scenery. Anais wondered if it held some significance to them, or if it was random scenery—random, he decided.
Catching his breath, he hesitantly approached to stand beside them. Fresh from the depth they'd shared, he could sense the distraction in their thoughts. The need for fewer variables. Whatever this scene was, it was calming to them.
"Barenin," he said, "we have to talk about it." All of it. From that day, from the day before. Everything they'd both been setting aside.
Barenin didn't move. "I reviewed what the ship saw and felt. I know what Sela said about me, and what she did to you, and how you both reacted."
Anais waited, expecting an apology for their manipulation of events, or a denial that what Sela had said was true. Neither came. Instead, Barenin turned to him.
"I'll leave you at Emirac Station when we come out of Kaireyeh, with enough credits to keep you going for quite a while. And, you have the identity implant."
Anais swallowed, glancing down at hands that were paler than his own. He'd forgotten he'd changed into his getaway persona. He felt suddenly very self-conscious in this form. This role that wasn't really a role. This role that was a barrier. A pretty shield.
He reached up to the back of his neck.
"You don't have to turn it off," Barenin said softly. Their voice held more inflection than an Aezthena's should. They were trying to simulate their humanity.
He dropped his hand. "You don't have to be more human with me. Barenin--" He stepped closer, and though they didn't visibly stiffen, he could sense that ghost of their emotions, a tightening of their walls.
"I'll keep my promise to watch over you," they said. "I'll keep you safe from a distance. I let you down, Anais. Sela is right. I will always let you—"
"To hell with that." Anais gripped their arm. "I know what you are. You keep saying we're the same but trying to show me how different you are from me, how different you are as Aezthena, but I know what you are." He gripped their arm harder and hissed out, "You're me. Maybe you're smarter, and faster, and stronger, and can breathe without oxygen, I don't know, but deep down where it counts? You're hurt, and you don't want to be hurt anymore."
Barenin turned to him, so expressionless, walls so closed that the lack of anything was like a slap. "You asked the ship to turn you Aezthena. No, Anais. You can never, ever be like me. I won't let you."
"That's not your choice," Anais said.
Now their eyes gathered a storm.
But he blazed on. "You're not the only one who covers years of pain with trying to do something right. Just something. To balance it all out. And you're not the only one with an ego the size of a galaxy who's also fragile as glass. And you're not the only one who's been broken, again and again and again. So stop trying to break me, Barenin. I won't, as best I can, break you. You are—"
His throat closed and he coughed.
Still no expression from Barenin. "Are you finished?" They casually pulled their arm from his grip. As if the gesture meant nothing.
His heart was tearing. He could feel the ripping of its pieces. And he pulled them back into place with everything he had, because he knew this tactic, too. The devastation that would make him feel a little better, because he'd justify it as well-placed anger. He always justified it somehow.
"No," he said hoarsely. "No, I'm not. Because yes, we have stuff to work through. A lot of it. But you're worth it, Barenin. And...I think I'm worth it, too."
He was shaking, out of breath. His body sheened in a fresh coat of cold sweat.
Barenin stared at him for what felt like a lifetime. Then they looked down. Licked their lips. Swore a sharp, vulgar oath. "I need to focus human right now, and I can't."
"I don't care, Barenin," Anais said, exasperated. "I don't care if you're human or Aezthena."
"I don't understand," Barenin said, flat voice rising. "I understand your logic, but not your reasons. I understand on a thought-level, but the math does not add up, Anais. I have so much more pain than you ever could have. It doesn't add up."
Anais flared anger at the surface insinuation and forced himself to look beneath it. Barenin wasn't saying his pain wasn't relevant. They were saying they would drag him down. That no, they didn't think their worth could ever reach back up to his. They were saying there was no comparison to their own experiences. And in some ways, that was true.
"Pain is an infinite variable," Anais said. "There is no quantifying pain. All pain is equally painful, and equally important."
Barenin tilted their head. Recalculating?
After a moment, they said, "Truly? You are still truly willing to stay? With me? On my ship?"
Had they really thought he'd just sleep with them and leave? Had they been paying no attention at all to what he felt?
Yes, they had. Maybe they hadn't wanted to believe it. Maybe they'd still thought they were saving him by pushing him away.
Anais gripped their hands. They didn't need the contact to read his emotions, but this was him giving them permission. "Yes, Barenin. I want to stay. With you. On your ship. It is, incidentally, a very nice ship."
No, no, not the humor. Barenin wouldn't understand the humor.
They began to pull away.
He pulled their hands back. "Please. Do you want me to stay?" And his stomach quivered at the answer, suddenly afraid it might not be what he'd thought. What he'd hoped.
They studied him, eyes coldly calculating. Still daring him to be repelled by who they were. What they were.
"I have not lived with a human in my Aezthena focus for centuries," they said. "And the last time did not end well."
A bitter pain. Sharp self-hatred.
Anais squeezed their hands harder. In their Aezthena focus, it would hardly be a pressure. But they'd feel his intent.
"I have never—" he choked on the words, then forced them out "—ever kissed anyone without a role, without more than base cosmetics, with nothing but my baseline self. Except you."
He trembled, now clenching their hands as an anchor. "And I've never told anyone else why. No, Barenin, you are not the only one who has big fucking issues with yourself. Or your body. Or manipulating those around you. Or being too gods-damned clever for your own good, and then finding yourself too entrenched in whatever mess you've made not to wing it through." He swallowed. "And you aren't the only one to push anyone who gets too close to you away." His voice came out breathy on the last, a gasp. "No, I don't love you yet. But I think I will. I think it's growing more even now."
Barenin finally took a breath. And no, there was still no emotion in their bone-white face, but there wouldn't be. Shouldn't be, in this Aezthena focus. But their walls eased, and some of what they were feeling came back through. The most tentative, fragile awareness of self. And of him. And of what they might be together.
What are we, Anais? they asked. What are we, really?
"Adrift," he whispered. "But maybe it's okay to be adrift together."
They bowed her head, lips stretching a tight line.
"Just...talk to me, Barenin. Trust me. And..." He looked down at himself again. Still not in his own body. "...and I'll try to do the same."
"When you're ready," they said.
"When I'm ready," he agreed, a tension inside him easing. They would let him stay. He could feel the uncoiling in them as well. They would let him be who he was. And maybe he wasn't his baseline self. Maybe he was this combination of all the roles he played. Unspooled, multi-faceted.
Maybe Barenin was, too.
He'd have time to unpack that later. By himself, or with Barenin. Or likely a bleed of both. Because he was increasingly sure that the closer they became, the fewer walls would remain between them. And...he was okay with that.
A peace he didn't expect settled over him, and it wasn't from Barenin. Or at least, not from their soothing.
They saw him. They saw all of him. And maybe in that moment they didn't fully understand him, but they didn't look away.
And he wasn't looking away from them, either. Flaws and beauty and titanium all combined into the most singular person in the universe. A person who knew him better after these last few days than anyone had in his life. A person he wanted to know fully.
They shifted closer by unspoken accord.
Barenin leaned their forehead against his. In the body he wore, he was a few centimeters taller than them. He grimaced and reached behind him, tapping the implant off. Yes, he needed to shift through roles. Through ideas. Through personalities. But not now.
As his baseline self, they were almost the same height. Their forehead pressed against his, and he leaned back. A mutual agreement. A mutual beginning of trust.
May I touch your thoughts? they asked. Deeper than the upper levels?
As an Aezthena would, they were asking. He felt their yearning, their shuddering need for an intimacy deeper than most humans could bear.
He nodded against them, and let whatever fragile human walls he'd managed to build crumble.
Their mental touch was like a cool breeze, taking extreme care. Memories, thoughts, and emotions surfaced as they brushed them, always hesitating for his permission before they looked deeper. Never taking their eyes off him, waiting for the signal that this intrusion was too much.
He waved Barenin away from some memories, but for most, let them see the places in his life. The high points. The pains. The loneliness. The ecstasy of a job well done.
Then they began to share moments from their own life. From when they were human-focused, mostly. Memories of family. Young children playing in sunlight, hands combing leaves off a hedge row as they ran. Of walking through a garden so exquisitely beautiful it pulled them from a years' long depression into feeling like they might go on. Of injecting themself with poison, only for their nanites to edge them Aezthena and filter it out. And the despair that had followed.
They showed him, because they had seen the impact their last treaty speech had on him, what they'd felt during that speech. Their racing fear that it wouldn't be enough. That they couldn't stop the end of everything. That they would always, inevitably, fail to keep the Aezthena from fracturing the universe. And showed him when they were twelve and first kissed a boy.
Barenin untwined their minds slowly, a gradual waking to the present. They were clutching each other, and their breaths, for a few moments, were completely in sync.
The shifting lights of the projected nebulae around them played in Barenin's eyes. Their lips quirked in that almost-smile. And it somehow felt more real than it should be. There was feeling behind that smile, however inhuman. No mask, just soul.
"Thank you," they whispered, just as Anais had opened his mouth to say the same.
He breathed out a laugh. Then leaned into them as they wrapped an arm around him. They faced the holo of the planet and the nebula and the stars beyond. It wasn't real. But he and Barenin—they were real. So very real, and very alive.
It would be all right. Anais didn't know how any of this would work out. But then, he'd never needed a solid plan before and saw no reason to change that now.
He smiled. So they'd take things one day at a time. One totally new, beautiful, dangerous day at a time.
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