The Penllwynogs were an old family, had historically been battle mages – some of their number had fought in King Arthur’s armies, had fought alongside Myrddin at the very beginning and before. Valorous is fairly certain that, as with many of the older, more historically significant families around Britain and Ireland (and a few other places besides) he could write out Cicero Penllwynog’s family tree from scratch.
He was the middle of his siblings, Valorous knew – he had met all of them here and there, Tacitus, Lucretia, Rhea, and Vesta, then Cicero, then Julius, the baby. Julius got on his nerves, and so did Rhea; he got on decently with Lucretia, had spent a few nights here and there bitching together in a corner at a party; he liked Tacitus and Vesta because they’d never really tried to talk to him properly.
It wasn’t like Valorous hated the man, but he was too try-hard, cared too much about people thinking he was pretty and beautiful and impressive, and while he never tried to show up Valorous or show himself up as being more impressive than he was, he still tried to get up close to him, like it mattered that people saw them together, or like it mattered what Valorous thought of him, and that set his teeth on edge.
He distantly remembered the first time he’d properly met him – he’d been fourteen or so, fourteen or fifteen, and Cicero would have been a few years younger, ten, maybe. Valorous didn’t know exactly how many years there were between them, but he remembered seeing the Penllwynogs all in their matching uniforms, already looking like a battalion even though they were kids, or, if not like a battalion, like the fucking Von Trapps.
“Fancy that you could win a bout against them all?” Myrddin had asked quietly – it had been at a party, Valorous thought, at a dinner party. They hadn’t all been sat down to dinner yet, but people had been milling about and drinking, and he remembered now how unpleasant it had felt, the weight of all those strangers’ eyes on his skin, looking over at Myrddin’s new favourite of his young knights, his new champion. He hadn’t been used to it, hadn’t been used to the ceremonial clothes he was wearing, their distinctly fae-styled tailoring, and there’d been magic thick on the air and he was a little drunk from trying something that Myrddin had poured in his glass, something he insisted Valorous had to try. Even tipsy, Valorous had known that it was a trap, that question, or at least, that it wasn’t simple.
No question was simple with Myrddin, and he’d learned that early on, had come to crave being able to get the answer right first time, to be able to please, to make the man smile at him, to make his eyes sparkle, to make him touch Valorous, put his hand on the back of his neck and squeeze it in a way that was just perfect, or card through his hair, cup his cheek.
“The older ones, maybe not,” Valorous had said, looking mostly at Tacitus and Vesta – they looked like statues now, both of them carved of marble and with a haughtiness to them; Lucretia and Rhea looked like that at first glance, but they were more expressive than the other two, laughed more. Tacitus especially was cold, but back then, when he was still a teenager, it hadn’t been as blatant, the mask hadn’t been as solid in place. He laughed more, showed his nerves more, wasn’t quite so hard a man. “The younger ones, sure. Especially the runt.”
That had been Julius – he’d kept hiding behind his mother and getting quietly scolded for it, nudged to stand on his own, but eventually he’d just given up hiding behind her and had started hiding behind Cicero instead.
“The runt, maybe,” Myrddin had allowed. “But I wouldn’t see you a certain bet against Cicero.”
Valorous had scoffed, but then he’d seen the Penllwynogs playing with each other later, and he’d understood what Myrddin had meant – it wasn’t that Cicero was insanely strong as a mage, but he had a lot of natural verve his siblings didn’t, and his magic was unstructured, chaotic, in a way that made him harder to predict. He’d been like a blur in amongst his siblings, and where they’d been going directly from the spells that Valorous was studying, Cicero had been a wildcard, combining hand movements from one spell with the draw of power for another, obscuring what he was doing from his siblings; they’d put up a shield only to realise he was setting up a raining volley instead of a direct spell strike; they’d dodge only to realise that what they’d thought was a flare of flame was actually a turn-up of the earth; he set their robes on fire or put ace in their hair. He’d done a little twist that had made Tacitus abruptly, furiously howl and throw his stave aside to grab Cicero by the hair and actually slap him across the face as Cicero had howled with laughter – he’d done something that melted Tacitus’ earwax on one side, made it pour in a little streak out of his ear when he’d tipped his head to do it. It’d looked like a nasty fucking burn, too.
Time and deep study had only made him more of a challenge, more of a threat.
Valorous was certain that, if pressed to it, he could kill Cicero Penllwynog and that it wouldn’t even be too difficult, but that was a very different skill to being able to face him in the arena and win.
He’d actually broken a sweat, going up against him on the sands – he’d been moving almost on autopilot with a lot of the warriors that had come before, even the other ones that were actually mages, but Cicero moved fast and had a kind of scattered approach, had quick footwork and spun and moved like he was fucking dancing when you were fighting him, and while Valorous was fast, he wasn’t fast and fancy about it. He liked to have a destination in mind and make his way toward it, liked to lunge with intention and focus.
Valorous was as flexible a warrior as he was skilled – sure he was. But Cicero Penllwynog, he required more than flexibility: you had to be flexible, you had to be fast, you had to do more than think several moves ahead, but think several moves off the board, as well, even if Cicero hadn’t tried to melt his earwax out this time around.
And now, instead of being able to just sit quietly and eat and think about it, digest it all, he was walking along with Cicero still chattering away beside him, saying… What the fuck was he saying? He was on Valorous’ bad side, and with all the noise from the street on the other side, he was struggling to keep up with it, could only focus in on snatches: “… module at the university, bit of a piss take really…” “… done the reading, but honestly, if you aren’t going to, why bother even coming to a…” “… elitist, like, of course, elitist…”
There was a restaurant up ahead, a quiet place that did good Italian food, and he glanced back at Coshel Fenwick and Cecil, who were talking more seriously with one another, looking like two old fuckers who’ve met in a pub. Talking about horses, Valorous thought – that’d make sense, for Fenwick.
“You want to eat there?” asked Cecil when he noticed him looking, gesturing forward, and Valorous silently nodded his head.
Cicero clapped his hands together and said something else that Valorous couldn’t catch. It was starting to really get on his fucking nerves.
His focus had been bad all fucking day, and that was part of the reason he’d wanted to go to the arena in the first place, why he’d wanted to just focus on his body and exercise and the fight, so he didn’t have to try and listen to dialogue on TV or focus on different voices, and now, here were two voices he straight-up wasn’t used to and that felt perfectly calibrated to fuck him over.
It wasn’t even as if it was his accent – he was used to Welsh accents, even posh accents like his, and Cicero didn’t even pepper Cymraeg into his speech the way a lot of posh mages did, spoke purely in English. It was just that Valorous was tired on top of already being out of skin like he’d been all fucking day, and it was frustrating as fuck, so much so he wanted to fucking spit.
“Lead the way, we need a second,” said Cecil to Coshel and Cicero, and as they went on ahead, Cicero glancing back at both of them, his eyes wide and too curious, too focused, too able to see too much, Cecil put his hands on Valorous’ shoulders. Myrddin used to do this, but his touches were always so light it was teasing, ticklish, almost – Cecil gripped his shoulders quite hard, and although he wasn’t a very heavy man, he leaned into Valorous and put his weight on him in a way that’s pleasant, bracing.
He leaned in to murmur in his good ear, “Okay?”
“Why the fuck did you invite them?” asked Valorous. It came out almost toneless, and he half-expected Cecil to give him a smack for it and to call him a brat, but Cecil didn’t do either.
“Dunno,” he said, which was a blatant lie. “Symmetry, two old fucks, two young ones,” he amended, which was probably not exactly a lie, and was funny enough that it made Valorous’ lips twitch, although he tried very hard to stop them. It wasn’t like Cecil could see his face very well in this position, but that wasn’t the point. “He was good against you in the arena. You didn’t lay him out as easy as you did any of the rest.”
“So, you’ve got competence in common,” said Cecil. “What’s the problem with that?”
Valorous didn’t say anything, just stayed in place and leaned back into Cecil’s body, into his hands. Cecil exhaled quietly, wrapped his arms tighter around him, keeping one hand still on his shoulder and banding the other one around his chest, pulling him in as tight as he dared. Valorous could feel the warmth of his breath on the top of his ear.
“Got a problem?” asked Cecil after a minute.
“I can’t understand what he’s fucking saying.”
“He talks too fast,” said Cecil. “Annoying little prick.”
“Your hearing aid going out?”
He waited for Cecil to let him go, to loosen his grip and pat him on the ass and make him go up the stairs, but Cecil kept hold of him and Valorous almost wanted to cry with the fucking relief of it, the fact that Cecil was still holding him. The street was still fucking loud, the traffic, people talking, but he could focus in on Cecil’s breathing, the heat and strength of his body.
“I’m not letting you go ‘til you tell me what it is,” said Cecil.
“I don’t want you to let me go,” said Valorous.
“Okay,” said Cecil, and started to loosen his grip and lean back, “then I won’t hold you again until you—”
“Stop it, don’t be a cunt,” muttered Valorous, gripping tightly at Cecil’s arm and stopping him from pulling away; he had his hand around Cecil’s wrist and was holding him tightly, and Cecil tugged experimentally. He was only stronger than Valorous if Valorous let him be, and right now, Valorous was less than inclined in that direction. “My hearing aid’s working fine, just that I can’t concentrate. I have to— I have to sort it myself, the sound, because I’m hearing both sides in one ear.”
“Okay,” said Cecil. “So, what do you need?”
“I want to fucking go home,” said Valorous. “I don’t want to have dinner with these fucking arseholes.”
“Well, tough shit, we’re having dinner with them,” was Cecil’s response, voice even in a way that was stern and a little condescending and comforting in how fucking steadfast it was. It made Valorous’ cock give a distant twitch of interest. “What do you need, if not to go home?”
Valorous stood there for a second, feet rooted to the ground, shoulders against Cecil’s chest, and Cecil pulled him in even closer, squeezed him so tightly that Valorous could feel the crush of it, let out a quiet sigh. “I need to sit with my good ear to them,” he muttered. “Don’t just— Don’t just stick me with the guy, fucking Hell. Just so you can talk to fucking Fenwick.”
Cecil didn’t say anything for a moment, and then he asked in tones of dawning comprehension, “You know who he is?”
“Coshel Fenwick,” murmured Valorous. “He works at the university, he said, stablemaster, that’s true. But his dad was a fleshturner; he’s a fleshturner as well. He got his license, even, but he doesn’t practise.” There weren’t that many fleshturners in the country, less than a hundred, less than thirty, probably – most people had to have a natural affinity for it just to get started, because it was weird, complicated magic, gory, but it needed care and subtlety. It wasn’t like when you were half-melting your fingers with magic and shoving them into someone’s abdominal cavity you could take it casually, after all – you had to be pretty fucking good at it from the get-go. There was not exactly a lot of room for error.
“What, you stalk him for some reason?” asked Cecil.
Valorous didn’t say anything right away.
“Seriously? What’d he do?”
He was glad he was facing away from Cecil. He already knew that he’d probably be talking about these feelings with Dot in the week and he wasn’t looking forward to it, no matter how healthy it fucking was. He was glad Cecil wasn’t looking at his face, because he could hear the note in Cecil’s voice that came out sometimes at times like these, when part of Valorous’ life – part of Valorous – was so fucking mental that Cecil couldn’t keep the curiosity out of his voice. If it was just that, just the curiosity, it probably wouldn’t bother him as much – it’s the fact that he can hear the judgement, too, the slight anger, the frustration.
Knowing he didn’t understand, not even wanting to understand. Disgust at Myrddin, or at the world, or at anything else, even if it wasn’t meant to be disgust at Valorous.
It wasn’t disgust at Ruby: it was disgust at whoever had treated her the way they had, at whoever had hurt her.
“Nothing,” said Valorous. “He hasn’t done anything. He doesn’t practice medicine because he was fucked up about his dad, so he just fucking— He lives on the university campus. He’s good with the horses, he’s popular with the university staff who know who he is, although they all think he’s, you know, just… ground staff, whatever. They don’t even know his name, most of them. Can we go inside? We’ve been out here too long.”
Valorous had never liked espionage, but he remembered how it started out, some of it – he’d never even thought of it as that in the beginning. He hadn’t thought of it as spying or training to spy or anything else. It had just been the kind of fucking challenges, little games, that Myrddin would come up with – capture this flag, gather this herb or flower, kill this beast.
Tail this man. Spy on him. Fold yourself between the pages of his life, such that he never even knows you’re there. Do his family love him? Would his workplace miss him? What’s he hiding? Who is he, really?
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t stalked people before, as if he had no experience with it – he’d already been at it, had followed people around from school, like Cecil, like others, but he’d never done it properly, not yet.
He couldn’t remember if Coshel Fenwick was the first, but he might have been. If he wasn’t the first, he was one of the first. He must have been, because he was so easy. No intimate family to speak of, no complicated relationships with anybody. He lived mostly alone, had casual friendships with other workers on campus, fucked men on campus. Women, sometimes, but mostly men. He liked horses, cats, read a lot of books, listened to music, didn’t watch much TV.
Saw bouts, occasionally, in the arena; he was more interested in dressage and jousting than he was in knights and warriors.
It could be, Valorous supposed, that everything has changed in the past ten years, that he was a very different man than he was then, but Valorous didn’tt think so. Some men were set in their ways, and he’d observed Coshel Fenwick for a few months, on and off.
It was weird, looking back – he still felt intimately familiar with the man and his habits, the way he held himself and the way that he talked, the way that he moved. He’d liked him, following him, observing him. He wasn’t comforting to watch, not like Cecil was, but he’d liked him.
Coshel Fenwick was stout, focused; he was staunchly anti-war, critical of the magical government, of Myrddin. He wrote letters to his representatives, he donated money to charity, volunteered his time and expertise when it was asked for in Camelot, at schools.
“Would you like me better if I was a dog?” asked Valorous.
“You’d probably bite people if you were a dog,” said Cecil.
“I probably wouldn’t have killed people if I was a dog.”
They were just crossing over the threshold, and Cecil sighed, smacking his arse. It’s not a hard thwack, but it’s audible, and it makes Valorous stumble as he starts up the stairs.
“You wouldn’t hit me if I was a dog,” said Valorous woundedly.
“I’d make an exception for you,” Cecil retorted, and Valorous laughed, surprised by the relief it came with, as he walked up to the restaurant.
Coshel Fenwick and Cicero had sat at a table for four, Coshel on one side and Cicero on the other – the table was against the wall, and Valorous didn’t know which side to sit on – either he’d sit with his right ear out to the room, or—
“Lad, sit next to Coshel, would you?” Cecil said, crisply and cleanly, a natural order. Cicero looked up at him, automatically moving to complain, but Cecil was already saying, “I’m bad in this ear, I need to be able to look the both of you in the face.”
Valorous didn’t laugh, but he wanted to, felt the urge rise, but it was pure surprise, really. He knew they were different people, knew that he and Cecil were different in a thousand ways, but it felt insane to him, the idea of admitting so immediately, so easily, to a weakness like that. It was different in large part because it was a lie, because Cecil’s ears were fucking fine, but still. It was different, because Cecil was older, because he wasn’t a warrior, because it didn’t matter—
Except it didn’t matter to Valorous either, did it?
He took the seat next to the wall after Cicero got up and swapped to sit beside Fenwick.
“Are you two alright?” asked Cicero mildly, and Valorous nodded mutely as Cecil rumbled out a, “Mmm,” and pulled the menu toward him.
“I assume you don’t need this?” asked Cecil, and Valorous shook his head, leaning back in his seat and waving at one of the waiters – Ezio – to come over. He wasn’t surprised that Cicero ordered one of their most expensive wines, and he wasn’t surprised either that Coshel ordered a lager; he was mildly surprised when Cecil grinned across the table at him and ordered the same one.
“Sir Valorous,” said Ezio, bowing his head neatly before he walked away.
“He didn’t take your order,” said Cicero in distantly bitchy tones, leaning forward in his seat as if he was about to call him back.
“He knows my order,” said Valorous quietly, drawing his thumbnail over the tablecloth and looking coolly across the table at Cicero, who blinked at him.
“Every restaurant in Camelot knows his order,” said Cecil dryly, leaning back in his seat and putting his arm across, resting his hand on the back of his chair. Not without some irony, he added, “He’s Sir Valorous King, don’t you know?”
“Fuck off,” said Valorous, but he was smiling, even as Cicero across the table laughed quietly himself.
“Don’t mind him,” said Coshel, chuckling – the sound was resonant and quiet, came from deep in his throat.
He was an attractive man. He had been attractive ten years ago, when Valorous was stalking his movements – he was attractive now that he was older, at forty instead of thirty. He looked a little older than he was, maybe because of the beard – he looked younger than Cecil, but not that much younger than him. His cock was big, Valorous knew that, very big, and he thought idly about what it might be like, to try to induce Coshel Fenwick to fuck him after all these years. He’d thought about it at the time, but he’d been too young, then – he’d never have said yes. Unlike Cecil, Coshel Fenwick’s desires lilted purely in the direction of men, not of boys, and Valorous expected if he got him into the subject that he’d condemn Cecil quite fully, even if he didn’t realise that wasn’t what he was doing.
Valorous thought about it, turned the idea over in his mind, tasted it on his tongue and didn’t let himself smile.
“Penllwynog likes to be the most impressive boy at the table,” Coshel went on. “He’s not used to having to hand over the crown.”
“It comes from being one of the least impressive of his siblings,” Valorous said, giving Coshel an easy smile even as Cicero let out a shocked, frustrated sound. “He wants finally to be remarkable.”
“That is not true,” said Cicero immediately, but he was grinning as he protested, his eyes alight with fire, and Valorous looked across at him as Cicero leaned forward so much that he was almost lunging across the table. “Who am I less impressive than? Tacitus?”
“Tacitus has a bigger cock than you do,” said Valorous.
“You couldn’t possibly know that,” said Cicero, but he sounded slightly doubtful, and Valorous grinned at him.
It wasn’t as if it his irritation had entirely faded, because it hadn’t, but it was easier now – the music was turned down very low and the restaurant wasn’t very busy, and Cecil was keeping his hand on the back of his chair, his index finger touching and stroking against the back of his shoulder.
“Tacitus is the eldest, isn’t he?” asked Coshel, and Valorous and Cicero both nodded at the same time; Cecil, resting his chin on his hand, looked between the two of them, his expression thoughtful as the waiter came back and set drinks and bread on the table.
“So you two already know each other well?” asked Cecil after he’d gone, and Valorous didn’t not answer, busying himself with biting into a slice of bread so that Cicero answered instead.
“Close?” Cicero repeated, raising his eyebrows, and he glanced across at Valorous almost shy for half a moment as he busied himself with taking up the jug – he poured himself water before he poured for Coshel, and Valorous made a note of it. “No, no, erm— Cecil. No, we’re not close at all. We’ve met a handful of times, you know, at parties.”
“Have you fought before?”
“No,” said Cicero. “I would say that barring this evening, our bout in the arena was the most the two of us have ever interacted at length. All we’ve really done is say hello in passing at parties.”
“You’ve said hello,” Valorous corrected after swallowing his mouthful of bread. “You’ve talked quite a fucking lot, actually.”
Cicero stared across the table, apparently taken aback; Coshel sniggered, putting his hand over his mouth, and when Valorous looked at him in interest, he just shrugged his big shoulders. “Nothing,” said Coshel. “Just, uh— Doesn’t surprise me, that’s all.”
“Well,” said Cicero. “I simply thought you had a tendency toward being quiet, that’s all. You either say next to nothing to someone or you argue furiously with them – that’s what I’ve seemed to observe, in any case.”
He was quiet at parties, that much was true. He was quiet in most places – he preferred to listen than to talk when it was a matter of being anywhere political or importance, anywhere where he was gonna be observed, anywhere he was going to be analysed and commented on afterwards, or interrogated by Myrddin or somebody else.
Talking to any of the Penllwynogs had always felt fucking loaded – if he laughed with Lucretia or talked with Vesta and Tacitus, it always felt like it was in front of a big fucking audience, always felt like it would have a knock-on effect, and they were much more acceptable, they were a lot cleaner, neater, tidier, than Cicero or Julius were.
And at a party, it was always noticed, too – Tacitus and Vesta, at least, were serious soldiers and mostly only talked to other members of the armed forces, spoke with other battle mages or military servicepeople; if not to them, they’d talk to academics and scholars, other mages; Lucretia was more chaotic, talked to artists and flirted with fae, but even then, she was never as loaded as Cicero.
Cicero Penllwynog talked to all kinds of people at parties and events, and he’d never given much of a fuck, it didn’t seem to Valorous about propriety – he was the only one of his siblings and cousins, the only one of his family, that wasn’t either actively serving in the Lleuodd Arfog or offering his services as a mercenary, and so he didn’t have to think about the wider implications of the people he talked to or the things he said.
Valorous had fucking seen Cicero Penllwynog at Myrddin’s parties, at other ambassadorial events – he showed up late, he often wasn’t formally announced, and it wasn’t like Valorous gave a shit about things like that, but Cicero flirted with fucking foreign royalty, he flirted with – threw himself at! – members of other military contingents, at gods.
How many times had Valorous looked across the room, sipping at a drink while he was listening to someone else talk, and caught a glimpse of Cicero Penllwynog demonstrating a fancy spell for a fae prince that he’d probably just sucked off in the coatroom, or even seen him leaning on the arm of Loki, or Ares?
It suddenly seemed insane that he’d ever cared. That it had ever mattered.
It didn’t matter.
And anyway, they were in a restaurant – there were no ambassadors here, no gods. There was no Myrddin observing Valorous, his reactions, noting down what he said, what he agreed or disagreed with, what he thought about.
It occurred to him, in a distant sort of way, that he knew a lot about what Fenwick would agree or disagree with, as it came up – about the military, about social housing, about politics, about the economy, about horses or dog-training or anything. He knew some of what Cicero would say, too, what he thought of a lot of stuff, he knew that he was aggressive and favoured a scattershot approach to battle tactics, had heard him talk at length about famous battles and warring strategy – in many ways, Cicero Penllwynog was vicious, as ice cold as he was warm and bubbly. He was a posh fuck, privileged, and he thought he’d earned it, too, Valorous knew that.
Fenwick probably found that disgusting, and so would Cecil – did Valorous?
He thought it was annoying, but what did he actually fucking think about it? How much did he agree or disagree? How much was someone born with talent like Cicero and the other Penllwynogs had, and how much of it was wealth, and how they were educated? Valorous was a strong mage by nature, but he’d gone to a strict military school and had later received private tutelage from one of the most famous mages of all time – he wouldn’t be what he was now without that, but how far off would he be?
He didn’t know.
Valorous thought of Ruby holding a toy in her mouth and not understanding how to play with it, felt frustration burning and tight under his skin, because wasn’t that what he was like?
He didn’t know how to have a fucking conversation. He didn’t know what he agreed with, and what he didn’t – he knew how to argue a bunch of fucking stuff, but it was never actually what he thought, it was just what was most useful to whatever mission he was meant to be focusing on, whatever he was meant to be portraying. None of it was actually him, and how the fuck did he make it him?
He'd zoned out.
He only started to pay attention again because there were small plates being put on the table, and Cecil’s hand slid across to grip tightly at the back of his neck, his thumb and his forefinger pressing either side of it.
“Okay?” he asked in an undertone, leaning in as he pushed a plate of stuffed mushrooms closer to Valorous’ plate.
“Yeah,” said Valorous.
Cicero, suddenly putting his eyes on him as if he was waiting for Valorous to pay attention to him, said, “Valorous?” When Valorous glanced across at him and Fenwick, Cicero said, “Have you really had sex with my brother?”
“Ha,” said Valorous, surprised by how much the question took him out of himself, how much it made him laugh. Him and Tacitus? No. They talked to each other, Valorous and Tacitus and Vesta, like they were what they were – a knight of the realm and two impressive mages serving in the same army, hoping to gain titles of their own one day. It was reserved, distant.
And Tacitus wasn’t right, anyway – he was too sane for the likes of Valorous.
Cicero was looking at him like he was desperate for his answer, and Valorous laughed some more, surprised by how suddenly lax his face felt, how easily he laughed.
“Only,” said Cicero, “I thought he was straight.”
“Mm,” said Valorous.
“So you have?”
“It’s Sir Valorous,” he said. His voice came out quieter than he meant it to, but Cecil was laughing, and so was Fenwick.
Cicero hissed, “You can’t be serious!” as Valorous kept laughing, leaning into Cecil. “Did you fuck my brother, Sir Valorous?”
“Nah,” said Valorous finally, slowly shaking his head. “He’s not my type.”
“Am I your type?” asked Cicero immediately. “Or Julius? Come on. Which of us would you pick, if it had to be one of us?”
“I’m not gay,” said Valorous. “I’m bisexual.”
“Okay,” said Cicero. “So which of us would you pick out of the six of us?”
“Your mum’s alright.”
Coshel Fenwick choked on his Peroni, coughing some of it into his beard as he tried not to laugh too loudly, and Cecil’s grip tightened on Valorous’ shoulder as he laughed himself.
Valorous was grinning and it felt easy because Cicero was grinning too, laughing and wriggling in his seat with excitement, tapping his feet on the ground as he said, with a kind of glee and excitement, “Oh, you horrible little bastard – my mother would chew you up and spit you out, I’ll have you know!”
“Yeah,” said Valorous. “That’s the appeal.”
Cicero groaned, but he still seemed—
Pleased. Happy. He was enjoying this, the banter, and there were no political ramifications to it, no expected outcome. Valorous felt like he was suddenly resting in a pool of water after spending a lifetime swimming with or against currents.
“Disgusting,” said Cicero, sounding delighted. “You’re a regular whore.”
“Pot,” said Valorous. “Kettle.”
“I’m not making movements on your mother!”
“My mother’s dead.”
“Oh, posh,” said Cicero immediately, undeterred. “You know I mean your aunt.”
“You are kind of Noble’s type,” said Valorous. “My uncle Jack’d probably be into it.”
“If you’re up for setting me up with your relatives, Valorous, your female aunt is not on my top five list.”
“Um, Courageous?” said Cicero immediately, like it was obvious, and Valorous laughed. “Oh, or— The model. He used to be an actor. Melodious?”
“He’s retired from acting,” said Valorous. “He’s a farmer now.”
“All the more time in his schedule to fit me in!”
Valorous ate a piece of mushroom, and the conversation went on, and somehow it was easy, this kind of banter, the back and forth of it – even once it calmed down and Cecil was talking with Coshel and Cicero about teaching methods, he could join in, and it wasn’t that hard. He knew about exercise, knew about PE, knew about training drills.
He'd never taught before, but it didn’t sound bad, actually, not when he thought about how into it Cecil was, when Cecil was a passionate teacher, when he loved teaching.
“You’re smiling,” murmured Cecil an hour or two later, when Cicero had excused himself to go to the bathroom.
Fenwick looked across the table at the two of them. His voice was quiet, understanding, as he said, “You didn’t want to come to dinner, eh?”
Coshel Fenwick didn’t keep dogs, didn’t particularly like them enough to ever have one, but he understood them, understood their body language, and even if he didn’t, he’d worked with abused horses.
It was funny, being between Cecil and Fenwick, and Valorous wondered if they’d keep talking after this, if they’d text each other, if Valorous would scroll up through Cecil’s texts and get to play a game, figuring out whether they were talking about Valorous or about Ruby or another fucked-up, traumatised animal that one of them was looking after.
“You’re anti-military, right?” asked Valorous, and Coshel blinked, staring across at him. He hadn’t said it, outright, and Valorous tried to think back over the dinner, if Coshel had made any comments – he had, Valorous thought. Now and then Cicero would say something about being a soldier, and every time he’d say it and nudge Coshel as he did, like he was expecting a certain reaction.
“At a table with three soldiers,” said Coshel after a second. “Seems like a loaded question.”
“Do you,” started Valorous, and he tried to think, tried to think of how to fucking just say it, how to just say something without it having layers behind it, without it trying to be political, without it trying to make something or trick someone or… Whatever. “It’s bad ‘cause people don’t have their own identity, right? Like, Cecil was in the army when he was sixteen – you made a face at that. Me, I was younger, and I went to a military school when I was a kid. Penllwynog, he was raised right out of the womb for battle. You hate that, right? ‘Cause it’s like, uh. Indoctrination.”
“It is,” said Coshel, glancing at Cecil’s face, but it wasn’t as if Cecil was going to disagree; it didn’t matter anyway, because Cecil was looking at Valorous, studying him intently. “Kids raised to believe that they have to be heroes. That it’s heroic to kill people, that it’s noble, somehow, some sort of sacrifice to learn how best to kill people. I do think it’s wrong.”
“Mm,” hummed Valorous, and nodded.
“Why do you ask?” asked Coshel.
“I agree,” said Valorous. “S’fucked up.”
Coshel stared across the table at him, his lips parted. It didn’t feel right, still – once or twice, over the course of dinner so far, Valorous had caught himself shocking, caught himself thinking that Fenwick was looking at him, that he was supposed to remain unnoticed, unobserved.
“I’m— like that,” said Valorous. “What you think.” His skin felt like it was on fire, but he kept talking anyway even though it made him feel sick, even though he felt like he was signing up to drown himself, like he might as well have been painting a target on his forehead, announcing a weakness to a stranger. “Indoctrinated. None of my, uh. None of my own opinions. None of my own thoughts. ‘Cause I was just a tool to kill people with, and now, I don’t know how to be a person. Right? That’s why it’s wrong?”
The curious smile had faded from Coshel Fenwick’s face, and he was looking across the table at Valorous, his lips parted, his eyes sad. He had nice eyes, dark, soulful; his dark, bushy eyebrows were furrowed forward.
“Right,” he said finally. “Well, sorry. But you’re out of it now, right?”
“Yeah,” said Valorous. “Cecil’s rehabilitating me. Like one of his rescue dogs.”
“That’s not true,” said Cecil. “I do that on purpose. He just broke into my house and stayed there.”
Coshel laughed, as did Cecil.
Valorous thought about explaining that it was not, in fact, a joke, just to see how Coshel reacted, but Cicero was back and tapping his fingers on the table, and suddenly the conversation was about facial hair, about how Cicero had never seen Valorous with a beard or a moustache, but that he’d like to; Cecil saying he’d tried to grow a little moustache when he was a teenager, how shit it had looked.
Valorous had forgotten.
It surprised him, that something from back then felt so good to remember. The whole night had surprised him, so far.