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Chapter One

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It wasn’t accurate to say that Cecil Hobbes had never lived with someone in his house before. Of course he had – he’d never been married in his life, and by definition none of his relationships really lasted more than two or three years, but he’d had lads in his house, over the years, here and there.

For a few months at a time, he’d had old army mates stay in the house while they got back on their feet and found a job elsewhere; he’d had lads whose families had kicked them out, or who couldn’t make up money for rent on their own flats.

And he usually had dogs, tended to have at least one, sometimes two or three.

Cecil was a man who liked to be on his own, but to be on his own didn’t mean that he needed to be the only person around. He’d grown up in a crowded house as a young lad, a lot of his older brothers still around – then they’d all gotten jobs, Randall and Vic had died, and suddenly it had just been him in the house with his mum and dad, and it’d been… Odd.

In the army, though, you were never on your own even if you were on your own, and it was the same once he was teaching.

But he’d never—

It was his house.

He’d bought it, took out the mortgage as soon as he’d started teaching in Lashton, and he’d put all his savings into it to make sure he could fucking pay off the thing – which was why he had no money now, yeah, but also meant he had a house to come back to once he was out of the nick. Even when there were people in his house, seventeen-year-olds he’d fucked twice and then let sleep in the spare room while they were studying for their exams, or old mates he’d served with who were knocking on doors all around until someone hired them, they were guests, whether they stayed for three weeks or a year and a half.

Valorous King, with whom Cecil Hobbes was recently involved, invited himself into Cecil’s house like it belonged to him too.

The first time he’d come in, it’d had been after drugging Cecil with a poisoned cigarette and knocking him out – the intention had been to make him dinner, dose him with some sort of souped-up magical Viagra, and make sure that Cecil fucked him.

He’d gotten distracted, though, by the state of Cecil’s house. Cecil’s house, which since he’d come back from the nick had gotten messier and dirtier because he didn’t have many friends any longer and he didn’t bring anyone he fucked home with him: he’d come in, seen it was filthy, seen there were bottles and cans and fag packets everywhere, seen there were piled up dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and like he was a born fucking housewife, he’d just started cleaning it all up.

Cecil had woken up groggy and out of it to a cooked dinner waiting for him in the oven, and his very own infamous stalker telling him he’d done his washing and put out all his bins.

It’d been months since then.

Cecil’s house was cleaner that it had been since he’d fucking bought it, all of his clothes clean and pressed and put away, all of his fucking documents and records organised and put into file boxes.

He’d always been quite a neat guy, depression notwithstanding, and he didn’t actually have all that many possessions in the house, but Valorous took cleanliness and neatness to the extreme.

He kept having arguments with the dog.

“Ruby!” said Valorous, and Cecil looked up from the paper, watching as Valorous came into the house either from work or the gym – he smelt of sweat and heat and his skin was shiny with it, and Cecil’s hands twitched with the urge to pull him up the stair to fuck him while he was still tired, lick the sweat off his chest.

Ruby had been chained up in a yard for the first two years of her life, was intermittently shouted at and beaten by the family she’d come from, was terrified of kids and other dogs. She didn’t know what to make of Valorous King – she needed a calm, easygoing hand, not a fucking neurotic little prick.

“Why’s your toy on the floor?” Valorous asked, brandishing a squeaky carrot. Ruby was stood on her feet with her head forward, her big brown eyes doleful as she looked up at him, and she nervously wagged her tail. “It goes in here.”

Valorous put the toy in the labelled box – he’d bought her a set of three kids’ toy troughs, split into squeaky toys and plushes, balls, and chew toys. Cecil had only bought her a set of three to see what she liked – Valorous bought her new toys all the time. As soon as he put the carrot in its box, he frowned, getting to his knees and swapping toys between the boxes, putting them where they were supposed to be.

Ruby stayed on her feet, watching him cautiously, and then slowly came forward, reached into a box, and took the carrot out.

“Are you playing with it?” Valorous asked sternly.

“She still doesn’t really get how to play with toys, kid,” said Cecil quietly. “She just likes to hold them.”

Valorous reached out, and it was funny, watching them be nervous of each other – Valorous was careful about holding the carrot by the corner, staying away from Ruby’s mouth.

Ruby dropped the carrot and left it in his hand.

Valorous gave it one squeak, smiling when Ruby’s ears tipped up and her mouth opened in more of a smile, and then he threw it – Ruby watched it sail across the room, politely baffled, and then looked back into the box.

“No, no, Ruby, we’re playing with the carrot,” said Valorous.

Ruby picked up a toy scarecrow and looked at him hopefully.

“Ruby, get the—”

“Good girl, Rubes,” said Cecil, and watched the way her face lit up, her tail wagging a little bit more, her ears perking up even more. She still didn’t wag her tail like another dog might, but they’d get there.

She wasn’t pissing on the floor inside anymore, had mostly grasped that she had to go outside for that, although she still didn’t ask enough for Cecil’s liking, so he was taking her out several more times a day than she really needed – the third or fourth time she’d pissed on the floor in the kitchen Valorous had burst into tears out of sheer frustration, and Cecil had sent him back to bed to keep him from making her even more nervous than she was.

 She’d kept trying to lick his face as he’d scrubbed the tile after, her whole body shaking, neither of them having any fucking idea what to do with each other.

Valorous looked back at Cecil, his face pinched.

“Take the scarecrow,” he said.

“But she won’t chase it.”

“So don’t throw it. Just take it and hold it out to her.”

When Valorous did, Ruby mouthed at the scarecrow’s head, chewing on the corner of it, looked mostly down but kept glancing up at Valorous’ face. Valorous squeaked the toy, and she jumped, but then took the scarecrow by the head and tugged it back, taking it back to her bed and lying down.

“She looks so sad all the time,” complained Valorous, going to pick up the carrot and putting it in its box.

“She isn’t,” said Cecil, and got to his feet, dropping the paper aside. “She’s being rehabilitated, lad. She’s not gonna act like a normal dog for a while – may be that she never does. It’s not her fault.”

“I’m not saying it is! Just— Doesn’t it make you feel bad? Looking at her? And she’s… sad?”

“Broken?”

“She’s not broken,” Valorous snapped.

“No,” Cecil agreed, not smiling but feeling the urge. “Come upstairs, I want to choke you while I fuck you.”

* * *

Cecil worked in a gym three or four days a week – recently, it had been four days more often than it was three, and now and then he even worked five. It was taking time, what with the reputation he had around Lashton at this point, but it wasn’t exactly a big fancy gym where people really gave a fuck who or what he was, and no matter how much some of them disliked him, he was good at training, good at fighting, good at what he did.

Sometimes, people came in and sneered and asked if he was that nonce, and he shrugged and said, “People call me that, don’t mean it’s true,” and put them to work if they didn’t walk out immediately.

Then they’d hear him working with other guys, pushing them hard, and they’d change their tune a bit, ask him for notes.

Valorous King, though, was a cop. He mostly worked murders and violent crime, and despite what an active little fuck he was, he did a lot of his work within the office – he collated data and evidence, put his freaky, analytical mind to contradicting statements and marked them out.

Cecil was fully aware that when Valorous King did interrogations, he got results – he was also aware that when he’d joined up, a sort of shudder had gone through the fucking population, because everyone knew who Valorous King was, and of all the pigs they could go head-to-head with, they didn’t want one like him.

The lad was fucking feral, and everyone could tell that just to look at him, just to talk to him, but when he stood right across from someone and bored holes into them with their eyes, they talked before they even fucking meant to.

He was a celebrity, of course. Sir Valorous King was a knight of the realm, had been since he was a teenager – he’d killed dragons, griffins, wyverns, led armies into battle, fought duels, jousted, had championed arenas across the country and abroad.

The lad had been on the fucking postal stamps in 2015.

“Do you think I should be in an institution?” he demanded when Cecil walked in the door.

Cecil took this in, unzipping his jacket and hanging it up – Ruby didn’t come to greet him because Valorous was sitting on the floor in her bed, and she was laying over his lap, her big blunt head rested on his belly, but her tail wagged as Cecil came closer.

“No,” he said, coming to crouch on the floor, and Ruby leaned forward for Cecil to scratch her big cheeks, but she kept her body in Valorous’ lap, not wanting to let him get up, not knowing when she’d get to sit with him again if she did. “Who told you you should be?”

“Sergeant Stark says I’m a hazard,” said Valorous. “That I’m unstable. That I shouldn’t be around the public.”

“David Stark? He used to beat the shit out of his daughters, and two out of three of them had eating disorders at school. I wouldn’t base your fucking persona on his recommendations. What did you do?”

“Told a witness that she was being a cunt.”

“… Alright,” said Cecil. “Starting to see his point.”

“She was being a cunt. Her daughter’s in hospital, and all she’s fucking talking about is how it’s her daughter’s fault for wearing this fucking dress or going out at night, or what fucking ever.”

“I’m not an expert on police procedure, lad, but I’m pretty sure regardless you can’t go around calling witnesses cunts.”

He leaned forward, burying his face in the top of Ruby’s head, squeezing her, and Cecil kept a careful eye on her body language, making sure she wasn’t stiffening up or uncomfortable, but she was surprisingly okay with being held and hugged, and Valorous never did it for too long even though he wasn’t too great with dogs.

“Of course,” said Cecil, “you knew that. You knew he’d react like that, that no one would think it was justified.”

Valorous shrugged.

“You want to take the dog for a walk?”

“Do we have to muzzle her?”

“Yeah,” said Cecil. “If we don’t muzzle her and she bites another dog, we’ll have to put her down. Besides, the muzzle is good – people see that she has a muzzle on and they keep their dogs away from her.”

“But she doesn’t bite them unless they get too close,” said Valorous. “It’s not like she runs up to other dogs to bite them – she keeps herself to herself, she only bites out of self-defence.”

“Yeah, but she’s a big dog,” said Cecil slowly. “She’s stronger than most of the other dogs, big, she has strong jaws. She can do a lot of damage that a chihuahua couldn’t.”

“I don’t like how people look at her,” said Valorous. “They look at her like she’s a bad dog, because she’s got a muzzle on.”

“She doesn’t know that,” said Cecil. “She doesn’t give a fuck – she’s a dog, she doesn’t know if anyone’s judging her. All she knows is that she’s allowed to go for walks and exercise, and she’ll be happier with no other dogs anywhere near her.”

Ruby was looking between them, but she didn’t twig what was happening until Cecil went over and took her muzzle off the hook, and then she skittered off of Valorous’ lap and rushed to sit at Cecil’s feet, her tail wagging hard.

Valorous stayed sitting in the dog bed, bringing his knees up to his chest and looking very small, and watched Cecil slide the muzzle onto Ruby’s face.

* * *

It was three in the morning when Cecil woke up, bleary-eyed and not really with it. He didn’t move immediately, just watched Valorous on his feet beside the bed, rifling through Cecil’s end table and collecting what he found there – cigarette packets were dropped into a little plastic bag, Cecil’s long-expired passport was placed aside, bottles of lube and sensation gel and tubes of chapstick and a tin of chest rub were lined up on the bed.

“Jesus, lad. You got OCD?” asked Cecil.

“You’re awake?” asked Valorous, not looking away as he pulled out two empty boxes of paracetamol, flattening them and then tossing them into the bag with the cigarette packets. “You want a cup of tea?”

“I’m not awake,” muttered Cecil, raising his chin and yawning, rubbing at his eye. “Get back in bed, fuck.”

“What’s OCD stand for again?”

“Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” said Cecil, lifting the blanket up, and Valorous slid underneath on his belly, pressing right up against Cecil’s body, sliding one of his knees in between Cecil’s thighs – it was fucking freezing, and Cecil clucked his tongue, wondering how long the little prick had been out of bed.

“You think I have it?”

He wasn’t even offended, obviously. He was barely paying attention, his eyes defocused, the hand that wasn’t settled freezing cold between their chests on the pillow, his fingers tapping against the fabric.

“Could be,” murmured Cecil. “S’not like I’m an expert. How long you been awake?”

“Dunno.”

“You sleep at all?”

“Sure.”

“How long?”

“Dunno.”

Fuck, but it was creepy when he was like this, barely awake and moving through life in a fucking haze, not really with it – listening but the way that a robot or an enchantment could listen, to follow basic instructions but not really get that you were talking to him, really talking to him.

He’d already cleaned out most of the rest of Cecil’s house, had scrubbed the living room and the kitchen and the bathroom and the spare room from top to bottom, had torn up the fucking carpet in the living room and rolled out a new one, bought new curtains. Everything in Cecil’s house was clean, freshly laundered, free of stains, organised, except the bedroom.

He glanced down at Valorous’ hands, trying to get an idea of how wet or rubbed raw they were, but they didn’t look too bad – he hadn’t been scrubbing anything before he started in the bedroom, or at least, it didn’t seem like it.

The lad must’ve been like this, at school.

Cecil recalled moments in PE classes where he’d come in and be uncomfortably quiet and intense, moments where he scared the everloving shit out of the students that had brains in their heads, and didn’t so much as intimidate the stupid ones until after he snapped and looked ready to beat them up, but he’d still be a little bitchy, a little snappy, still alive.

That had been once he’d been at school, though – maybe in the dormitories at St Idloes, he’d been like that, or at home with the other Kings.

Cecil had never really talked much to Maybeetle, who’d been the pastoral care expert, or the dormitory matrons, and while he’d talked once or twice to the school counsellors as much as he’d done his best to avoid it, they’d never talked about Valorous King, only about other shit in passing, sometimes other students.

And he’d never gotten the impression that any of the other teachers at Idloes understood King as well as Cecil did himself, saw him for what he was – they either thought he was some sort of glorious fucking hero ordained by the king regent, or they thought he was troubled and they were scared to have him in their classroom.

Cecil reached up and put his hand in Valorous’ hair, pulling hard, and Valorous blinked a few times, leaning back into Cecil’s hand and looking at him askance, his lips parting.

“Huh?”

“You have a nightmare?” asked Cecil, and studied the slight darkening of Valorous’ features, the shadow that came into his eyes.

He had blue eyes, obviously, had to be a blue-eyed boy – they seemed normal enough from far away, but once you were up close with him like this, you could see it wasn’t a natural colour, that it was too pure and lacked the texture of colour that an iris was meant to have. It was a crystalline blue, looked more like water than the inside of someone’s eye. There was a note in his medical record at school that his eyes had changed colour from a magical incident, probably the one that laid him up in Camelot that first time, for those months of recovery.

“Mm,” said Valorous, and shrugged his shoulders, but he looked awake now, glancing around the room and shifting closer, straddling Cecil’s thigh and putting his hands on Cecil’s chest, pressing on the flesh, his thumbs sliding over his sternum. “I dreamt that I ate your heart.”

“Oh, right,” said Cecil, unenthused. “Prophetic, do you think?”

“I don’t have prophetic dreams,” said Valorous, with a sort of blunt certainty.

How long had Valorous King been the favourite pet of the king regent?

Since he was thirteen or something, thereabouts, and Myrddin had kept Valorous under his hand, on and off, until he was twenty-four, Cecil thought – when he’d been at school, he’d go off to Camelot for lessons and extra tutelage for weeks at a time, to compete in tournaments and championships, and once he’d finished school he’d been in the army, although never as part of the rank and file.

He’d been in with some of the battle mages, Cecil was aware, for a little while, but mostly he’d be off in splinter groups or commanding smaller units, or he’d be the face on a battle to scare the shit out of whatever poor, ready-to-slaughter cavalcade of sacrifices was ready ahead of them.

No matter what he was doing, it had been with Myrddin Wyllt’s personal attention, until he’d gotten some new student – Cecil had read about her in the papers the last few years, some alchemist necromancer, impossible to photograph without a sort of haze distorting the picture – and lost interest in his old favourite.

He hadn’t asked questions about it, but he assumed that the break-up had come after that, and that was when Valorous had come back to Lashton, thought to be a copper.  

He suppressed his smile, recalling when Myrddin had taken Cecil’s face in his hands and stared deep into his eyes, had told him he had no destiny to speak of unless he chose to make one of himself, and that he had no Sight. He’d only been a lad himself, eighteen or so. It was part of the reason, Cecil supposed, that Myrddin had picked him out of the line-up to use as a fucktoy instead of any of the other soldiers – because he meant nothing to nobody and never would.

Of course, there wasn’t any such thing as someone who had no destiny: even men like Cecil Hobbes had futures, in a literal sense. Knowing Myrddin Wyllt, it could well have been that he fucked Cecil knowing that one day he’d take up one of Myrddin’s leftover protegés – except that neither Cecil nor Valorous would ever have fucked the other were it not for Myrddin in the first place.

Cecil considered himself a man somewhat intolerant of prophecy and future-divining, if not outright allergic.

“That’s for the best,” he murmured. “Of all the hearts you could eat, you’d not want a smoker’s.”

“I’ve eaten hearts before,” said Valorous.

“Still beating?”

“Mm.”

“In the arena?”

“Yeah, but not people’s hearts, not other knights,” he clarified. That was good – thinking about the arena woke him up completely, and he was wide awake now, sitting in Cecil’s lap, his arse resting on his thighs, his expression focused, concentrated, a little severe. Frightening, obviously, but that was Valorous King for you. “A drake’s heart, once, and a chimera’s. I bit into the heart of a mist wolf, and it was half vapour in my hands, and when I bit into it, it really was like biting through thick, thick air. Outside of the arena, not really, but there was a skirmish at Victim’s Peak, and I duelled their company captain. I bit into his heart once he was dead – I didn’t… I never planned to. I didn’t mean to, I mean. The whole thing is kind of a blur, actually, I remember putting him on the ground, and then I just remember snatches – his heart set my mouth on fire when I bit into it, the same way popping candy does, you know when you feel that sharp thrill from it?”

“Victim’s Peak is deadland, Valorous,” said Cecil. “Whose fucking army were you fighting?”

“It’s not deadland,” said Valorous, looking confused, but then his brow furrowed, his lips pressed together. “Fuck,” he said. “Is it? That would explain why I went like I did. I tore through all of them after their captain like they were made of paper – they had to wash me off with a hose before I could go inside.”

“It was deadland when I was there,” said Cecil quietly, gently squeezing his waist.

“It probably still was,” Valorous said now. “Do revenants taste like popping candy?”

“If they do, I doubt anyone’s written it down.”

Valorous looked at Cecil very seriously, all of a sudden, and asked – demanded, really – “When did you first get raped?”

“Uh,” said Cecil, “I was seven. My dad came home drunk, very drunk. He’d made me fondle him before that, suck him off a few times, but that was when he first buggered me.”

“What about your mum?”

“She never touched me.”

“No, I mean… Why didn’t she stop him?”

“She wasn’t really in any position to stop him any more than I was, lad,” murmured Cecil. “The woman was a nervous wreck, and she drank to cope, same as he did.”

“Same as he did?” Valorous repeated, looking abruptly angry. “What, like, he raped you as a coping mechanism?”

“Dunno that I’d put it like that,” said Cecil. “He was a veteran, all his friends had died in the war the first time around, then his first and second wives both died. First one died of cancer, but the second one was gangraped and murdered, that was in the fifties.”

“What war?” demanded Valorous, suddenly petulant, and it made Cecil laugh. Ignoring him, he went on, “You don’t mean World War 2.”

“I do,” said Cecil.

“How fucking old are you?”

“Me, I’m fifty-four,” said Cecil. Valorous opened his mouth, and Cecil said, “He was forty-nine when he got my mother pregnant.”

“How old was she?”

“Twenty-something.”

“Ugh.” Valorous said, making a face, and Cecil laughed again, demonstratively grinding his cock up against his arse. “This is different. You can’t get me pregnant.”

“Don’t worry, baby, we can keep trying.” He filed away the flutter of Valorous’ lips and the slight widening of his eyes in the back of his head, committing that expression to memory, to come back to later. “He was always drunk when he fucked me. Had to be – would sob after, sometimes, cry his fucking eyes out, say he was sorry, that he’d never do it again, that he’d kill himself. He never did – and he whored me out later, which isn’t typically what someone does when they’re really fucking sorry.”

“You’re so calm about it,” said Valorous quietly, staring down at him, very serious, lips pressed together. “I couldn’t be calm about something like that. Am I the first person you’ve told?”

Cecil shook his head. “I went to a group in prison.”

“Group therapy?” asked Valorous, wrinkling his nose, and Cecil stroked his hands over the back of his arse.

“Not really – it wasn’t that structured, it was just a talking group that happened to be run by a counsellor. Most of ‘em were rapists, sex pests, convicted nonces. I remember one lad got upset when I said I only ever fucked legal boys, asked if he thought it made me better than him, and I said, yeah, mate. ‘Course I do.”

Valorous was used to being able to make people uncomfortable, especially by asking questions like this, and Cecil could see he was a little uncertain and uncomfortable with just how comfortable Cecil was, how unbothered he was talking about it, answering questions.

“You never raped any kids?” asked Valorous.

“Nah,” said Cecil quietly. “When I was still a kid myself, I fucked other kids – started when I was twelve, fumbled about with lads my age. Once I was in the army, I fucked a few of the sixteen-year-olds who joined up, but I tried to skew older.”

“But you’d rather fuck actual kids?” demanded Valorous, his voice hard and brittle in a way that made Cecil’s stomach do an anxious flip, even though he had no business feeling fucking anxious about anything.

“Young teens make my cock hard, sure,” he said. “Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven. But I can look at a boy and think about what he’d feel like without turning him into a sex toy, breaking him open. A lad like that is a human fucking being, believe it or not.”

“Me?”

“You? Are you a human being?”

“Would you have fucked me? When I was eleven?”

“I didn’t fuck you when you were eleven, despite having pretty easy access,” said Cecil, arching an eyebrow. “I think that answers that.”

“Why not?”

“You’re offended?”

“Maybe I am,” said Valorous. “I wasn’t a sexy enough child?”

“Sexy enough to wank over, maybe,” said Cecil, shrugging. “Not sexy enough to become a rapist over.”

Valorous’ hard eyes turned gooey, and Cecil felt even more sick, although this time it was worry for the state of Valorous’ fucking head instead of self-loathing. “You wanked over me?” he asked, voice agonisingly soft.

“Not when you were eleven, no. Later, sure. When you were fifteen and started bending over and displaying your hole for me like an aspiring child bride. Did you ever think about what would have happened, if I’d actually fucked you? What it would have felt like to be fucking your PE teacher? Not the sex, lad, not my cock barely fitting in your teenage arse, the way I’d’ve made it hurt, but the secrecy of it. The fear. Knowing I could get you expelled, ruin your life, threaten to take anything I felt like away from you if you ever stopped pleasing me.”

“I was pursuing you,” said Valorous, and Cecil stroked his hands over the muscled globes of his arse, squeezing slightly. “I was a fucking celebrity – I was a hero, the king regent’s own. If I’d asked his majesty to kill you, he would have.”

“That’s what you thought at the time,” said Cecil. “You didn’t know me and him knew each other.”

Valorous’ expression faltered, his lip shifting as he bit his lip.

“And, lad, fuck Myrddin – I had my own reputation for safeguarding as a teacher. If I’d gone to your dorm head and said I was seriously concerned about sexual abuse, he’d’ve been on it like a car bonnet, had you transferred somewhere else, put you in therapy.”

“I would have said that you were the one abusing me,” said Valorous.

“Maybe they’d have believed you,” said Cecil, shrugging. “But I doubt it. Even before you lasered in on any man who’d let you suck his cock in the vicinity, I was known for reporting abuse and keeping an eye out for that.”

“Do you wish you’d done it?”

“No.”

“No?” asked Valorous, and leaned forward in Cecil’s lap, looking down at him. “You never think about it? I was smaller then – bet I would have been tight. You’d have been the first man inside me, first man to fuck me. Open me up. I’d be shaped for you my whole life.”

“Very hot, sure,” said Cecil lowly, aware that his voice was gruff with sex, that his cock was half hard. “But I’d have been the nonce fucking a fifteen-year-old student, knowing what I was taking from you.”

“But I fucked other people, so you wouldn’t have been tak—"

“Valorous,” said Cecil. “I’ve had enough of this, now. I’m fucked in the head, lad, we both are. We want things, need things, that in’t right, not for anyone. The difference being that when you want to scrub something until your fingers bleed, you don’t ruin anyone’s fucking lives forever. Raping a fifteen-year-old, on the other hand, tends to have that effect.”

“It wouldn’t have ruined my life,” said Valorous. “It would’ve been better. I wouldn’t have fucked all them other men, if you’d just fucked me. You would have looked after me better, wouldn’t you? You would have been nice, you would have treated me the way you treat me now. You’re fixing me, aren’t you? Making me better?”

Something in Cecil’s chest felt raw and open and wrecked at the way he said it, the way his eyes were open and vulnerable and wanting, and Cecil wanted to be sick, wanted to scream, wanted to shove Valorous off him, wanted to wrap him in a blanket and put him back to bed, wanted to strangle Myrddin Wyllt with his bare hands.

“Is that what I’m doing?” he asked in a very low voice, aware of the hoarseness in it. “Fixing you?”

“I’m better,” said Valorous, almost defensive. “No one else ever tried to make me better.”

Was he better?

Cecil didn’t think so. Every day he saw Valorous King, he seemed even crazier than he had the day before, but then, he had no fucking idea what he felt like.

“If I’m making you better,” said Cecil, “why don’t you take me up on therapy?”

He’d suggested it before. Half a dozen times, he’d suggested it, that the lad go and see someone actually qualified to have a look in his fucked-up head and try to fix it up a bit. As with every other time before, he scrunched up his nose and his lips and his face, and glared down at him.

Why?” he demanded.

“Because I’m not qualified to fucking fix you,” said Cecil. “I rescue dogs, not knights.”

“If therapy’s so good, why don’t you go?”

“Because I don’t want to.”

“Well, nor do I! I won’t go unless you go.”

“You’ll see a therapist if I see a therapist?”

“Yeah.”

“Fine, okay. I’ll go.”

Valorous’ mouth dropped open. “What?”

“I’ll go see a therapist, in’t no skin off my back, s’not like I haven’t done it before. If it means you’ll go, I’ll go too.”

Valorous was looking at him in the devastated, indignant way that he looked at Cecil when Cecil managed to pin him on the floor or get a punch in when they were sparring – Valorous was a lot stronger, faster, smarter, and younger than Cecil was, so he shouldn’t be able to, and he always took personal offence when Cecil managed it.

“But—”

“Going back on your word, lad?”

Valorous set his jaw. “Fine,” he said venomously, and then, in the same spiteful tone, “You can fuck me now.”

“Oh, can I?” asked Cecil, and put his hand around his throat, listening to the way he choked and grinning at the sound.  

* * *

It had to be angels.

Faeries didn’t much believe in the concept of mental illness, not to mention the fact that the concept of therapy to most of them was a bit like going up to a stranger and giving him your name – it was weakening yourself to no imaginable benefit, making yourself vulnerable by giving away your secrets, giving away means to control or overpower you.

But it had to be angels – it had to be people that were guaranteed, as a matter of course, not to trust the king regent anymore than they would anyone else, people who wouldn’t be intimidated by him, people who weren’t vulnerable.

Cecil didn’t kid himself – if Myrddin Wyllt realised Valorous King was getting therapised and took it upon himself to go into his notes or eavesdrop on his sessions, that would be precisely what he would do. Trying to inure the process from Myrddin spying on it would be pointless and stupid to try, and would in fact only encourage him to do so when before he might not have been interested – the really important thing was that when Valorous talked about him, talked about the king regent, whoever he was talking to treated both Valorous and Myrddin as if they were people, not demigods, and acted accordingly.

The last thing Cecil wanted was to put Valorous on a couch, finally have him open himself up a bit, look internal, and say something critical about Myrddin Wyllt or the crown, and be shut down by some fucking royalist who couldn’t stand to hear it.

“Are you taking on new patients at the moment?” he asked quietly.

“You want to make appointments for two people,” said the doctor, looking down at him. Doctor Majok was a tall, slim man with a shaved head – he wore round glasses and a green cardigan over his shirt and tie. He’d been in the waiting room when Cecil had come in, and as his receptionist went over something on the computer with someone else, he’d gestured for Cecil to follow him into his office.

“You a telepath?” asked Cecil guardedly.

“No,” said Majok. “My sisters are, if that’s a concern for you.”

“In’t a concern. Just asking.”

“Paulette Fields told me that a man had been looking for two places as new patients, with concurrent appointments,” said Majok, picking up a teapot and gesturing with it, and Cecil gave a stout nod of his head. “You would be Cecil Hobbes?”

“Yeah.”

“Have you any experience with therapy or counselling before now, Mr Hobbes?”

“Yeah,” said Cecil quietly. “After I was discharged from the army, I had to do some screening sessions with a psych to make sure I an injury in my hip wasn’t psychosomatic, but it turned out to be magical damage to one of the nerves. And when I was inside, I was court-ordered to talk through anger management strategies, as well as going to a support group for sex abuse survivors.” He said it through almost gritted teeth, feeling like he was burning himself saying it, but he knew that being honest now was better than being found out later.

Majok nodded seriously, not looking deterred as he passed him a cup of tea.

“And what are you looking for from therapy?”

“I’ve been trying to get the lad I’m sleeping with to come, and he won’t go unless I go,” said Cecil honestly, keeping Majok’s gaze and not breaking it. Majok looked mildly surprised, his eyebrows raising, but he didn’t look angry or disgusted, which was good. “He needs it, I think, because I’m not qualified to… And it’s not like I can’t benefit from it. But I’m here ‘cause he needs to go, and this is the only way I could get him to agree.”

“This is why you want appointments at the same time?” asked Majok. He exuded an incredibly calm, collected air, and Cecil felt himself let out a breath, wondering if it was contagious for mundane reasons or magical ones. “So that you can ensure he goes?”

“Nah, he’ll— He’s told me he’ll go, he wouldn’t back out on his word now he’s said it,” said Cecil. “But if we go at different times, he’ll spy on my sessions while I’m here.”

Majok blinked.

“He— Look, I suppose Paulette Fields in’t the only person who called you. I bet Karen whatever the fuck also let you know we were looking, and that angel counsellor at the hospital, too.”

Majok didn’t say anything, his expression completely blank.

“I was his PE teacher, at school,” said Cecil. “Then last year he was stalking me, and he still does. Stalk me. Follows me around, goes through my phone, goes through records of me. It’s pretty much a guarantee that he’s gonna try to go through your records for his own notes and mine – but if we go at different times, he will listen in on my sessions, and I don’t want that to be the point of this. I want him to focus on his sessions.”

Majok took a sip of his tea, taking this in.

“And I’m a paedophile,” added Cecil, figuring he might as well shove the knife all the way in, while he was at it. “Non-offending, don’t rape kids, don’t look at child porn, none of that. But I’m attracted to kids, teenagers. Just in case that’s a deal-breaker.”

“Is that why you were worried I was a telepath?” asked Majok, and Cecil pressed his lips together.

“Common courtesy, in’t it? S’not like you want that dropped into your head.”

“Distressing thoughts and urges are my profession, Mr Hobbes,” said Majok, almost gently. “I’m not here to judge the thoughts in your head – my purpose is to help you heal from old wounds, to better live with what’s in your head, and arm you with tools to cope with those distressing thoughts and urges.”

“Yeah, well,” said Cecil. “Most therapists don’t want a nonce sitting on their couch, profession or not.”

“Has that stopped you from seeing out professional help before?” asked Majok, sharp as a scalpel. His eyes were so dark behind his glasses they were almost black – it was a very calming colour, Cecil found. “The knowledge that the stigma of your condition might make some offices turn you away?”

“When I was younger, sure,” said Cecil. “But I’ve read up on it. Trauma, paedophilia, sex offences. A lot of it, I read the, uh, literature. Stopped looking, while I was a teacher, because I knew if I did go to someone and got reported, I’d be liable to lose my job.”

“You don’t teach anymore?”

“I got put in the nick for GBH,” said Cecil. “Can’t teach after that – I work in a gym now.”

“And your partner?”

“It’s Valorous King,” said Cecil, and watched Majok’s face. His eyes really widened now, the colour seeming a tiny bit lighter with more light on it, but still very dark, and his eyebrows went right up, his forehead wrinkling.

“Ah,” he said. “I see.”

“If you can’t take us, if you had any recommendations for—”

“We can take you,” Majok interrupted him. “If you’re comfortable, you and I can take sessions together – and we can arrange for Sir Valorous to take an appointment with one of my sisters, if the two of you call us at the same time.”

Cecil stood there for a second. “Just like that?”

“Just like that,” said Majok.

An uncomfortable pit formed at the base of Cecil’s stomach, and as Majok stared at him, he drank more of the tea, even though it was hot.

“Why don’t we get some intake forms for you and Sir Valorous?” asked Majok reasonably.

“Yeah,” said Cecil, trying to ignore the roiling nausea inside him. “Why don’t we?”

“Are you frightened?” asked Majok.

“Scared shitless.”

Majok nodded his head, picking up a pen and passing it over with a form, still calm, still on an even keel. “It’s understandable to feel frightened,” he said, “and not at all uncommon. Anxiety unites almost every patient, whether they’re starting therapy for the first time or returning.”

Cecil stared down at the intake form, slowly nodded his head, and filled in his name.

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