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Chapter Five

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Majok leaned back in his seat to look at Cecil, his hands loosely clasped over his lap. It was slightly warm in the room, which was a relief compared to the cold dampness outside, and Cecil had hung up his coat.

“How’s the week been?” asked Majok.

“It’s been okay,” said Cecil. “Lad’s been sleeping pretty well this week, which means I’ve been sleeping better.”

“Does Sir Valorous wake you often?”

“Not on purpose,” said Cecil. “And not actually by, uh, by kicking out or fidgeting in his sleep that much, actually. He creeps out of bed, all quiet, and I realise he’s not in bed with me – and then I listen out for where he is. He’ll be cleaning something, normally, or organising something – if there’s nothing for him to clean, he’ll be sharpening a blade or polishing his armour.”

“Does he stay in your flat every night?” asked Majok. “Are you living together?”

“Not every night,” said Cecil. “I normally see him every day – if he’s not gonna drop in on me after he finishes work, he’ll drop in on me while I’m working. But no, he doesn’t sleep at mine every night – normally three or four nights a week. Pretty sure he doesn’t sleep in his bed in his own flat, though.”

“He sleeps with other men?”

“Sure,” said Cecil. “Not always, though – I don’t mean he’s always fucking people. He’ll be out on some kind of stake out, or he’ll fight all night in an arena. He goes camping sometimes, on his own.”

Majok looked at him curiously, sipping from his drink.

“You’re surprised I don’t care he sleeps with other men?” asked Cecil.

“Somewhat,” said Majok. “Are your relationships usually non-monogamous?”

Cecil opened his mouth, closed it. “I don’t normally have relationships,” he said after thinking about it for a moment or two, glancing to the door as if he was going to see Valorous standing there – Cecil admitting to not having relationships would only confirm the lad’s insistence that this shit was destiny. It was true, though, he didn’t. He’d just never been out there trying to date, trying for romance – he fucked, he dommed, he lived with boys, but never… Never had a relationship, exactly. “But no, I’ve never set an expectation that the boys I fuck don’t fuck other men outside of orgasm denial stuff – and even then, it was fine for them to fuck about, they just weren’t allowed to come, or they had to ask permission first.”

“But you don’t engage in that sort of play with Sir Valorous?”

“We’ve talked about it – I think it’s something he might be interested in later on. But no. I don’t make him ask permission or anything – but he tells me about it, normally, say he met this guy or that guy at a club or down at the docks or that a certain guy was in town, what they did together. Normally he’ll give them a fucking review out of five stars, pretend he’s reading his column in the paper. It’s funny.”

“Do you tell him about other men you sleep with?”

“I don’t sleep with other men,” said Cecil. “I’ve been fucking about less, the past few years – it’s not like I’ve got a lessened libido, I’m probably getting hornier now than I was for years, but it’s the difference in effort, and I’m older, less attractive. Kind of boys who want a daddy will pretty much always want a daddy, but you have to go out and find them, and I don’t.”

“How do you think Sir Valorous would react if you had sex with another man?” asked Majok.

“I don’t know,” Cecil said. “Could be he wouldn’t be bothered by it. Could be that he’d murder them.”

“I assumed jealousy would be a concern.”

“Yeah. I haven’t asked, haven’t much wanted to. I mention seeing lads from time to time, especially the ones that look at me, you know, at the gym or the pool, and he’ll latch onto it and ask a hundred questions about what we said to one another, how we interacted, all that, but it’s worse when he’s been following me and he sees some lad was looking at me that I didn’t see. He’ll demand why I didn’t notice, if I didn’t find them attractive, but mostly he’ll talk about the other guy, what a coward he was for not coming over if they wanted a piece of me.”

“That sounds like a lot to digest,” said Majok after a few seconds pause, and Cecil laughed.

“Yeah,” he said. “Lad’s fucking mental. What do you know?”

“But less mental this week,” said Majok, and Cecil nodded slowly.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I guess. We went to his aunt and uncle’s anniversary party – Noble’s the head of the King family, and Jack King, he writes for the Beacon.”

“They’re not just his aunt and uncle, though, are they?” asked Majok. “They raised him, after his father died.”

“Yeah,” said Cecil. “I… Yeah. Last time I saw them was across the table for a parents evening, with their youngest, so it was a bit weird. But they were, you know, they were alright. I don’t know what they were like as parents, but he seems to have a pretty alright relationship with them – and they were… I don’t know, they were alright with me. Jack took the piss, said that they should be grateful he’s with me instead of some monster, but I did get the impression he was genuinely relieved. Noble was a little colder, but she shook my hand, she didn’t call me anything. Could be that that’s the precursor to having me killed and dropped in the canal, but I didn’t think so.”

“Were you comfortable at the party?”

“No,” said Cecil. “Fuck no. All those people, not just the Kings, but there were Laithes there, there were Renns and Sorrels.”

“No Pikes?”

Cecil chuckled. “No legitimate ones that I saw,” he said quietly. “But I wasn’t looking. But, you know, it was a who’s who of fucking crime gangs – not just the big ones, but I saw a lot of people I know by sight, you know, dealers, underground fighters. I remember thinking that that was why the ones who knew who I was didn’t bat an eyelid that I was there. GBH didn’t mean anything in that room – sex crimes might’ve meant a bit more, but… I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” Majok repeated.

“You know Courageous King?”

“Not personally, but of course I’ve seen him in the papers,” said Majok, “heard his speeches. He’s a very charismatic man.”

“He is,” said Cecil. “He’s on my side. As soon as he started talking to me, he basically said he didn’t care that people thought I was a paedo, said it wasn’t a problem. It was weird.”

“Weird?”

“It was weird that he said it,” said Cecil. “I didn’t know if he was saying it for my benefit or for the lad’s. And either way, it was… I don’t know. I didn’t expect it. And I guess if he’s so quick to excuse me, I wonder if he’s quick to excuse other people who’re as bad as I am, or worse.”

“How bad are you?” asked Majok. His voice was even, tone normal, and Cecil shifted back in his seat, pressing his thumb into the palm of his hand, digging the nail in slightly. They sat in silence for a few seconds, and Cecil was painfully aware that another guy might have interrupted the silence, might have broken in to assure Cecil that this was a non-judgmental space, that he was safe here or some other bullshit, the same way some shrinks would do in the nick, and he found himself relieved that Majok didn’t do that here, that he just let the silence sit.  

“Well,” said Cecil. “I’m a nonce, in’t I? I want to fuck young lads.”

“Do you?”

“No. Yes, but not… I told you, I only… I only fuck legal lads, normally eighteen and up, a few seventeen-year-olds here and there. But always, always legal ones, and always ones that want it. Whether they’re curious or whatever, I always… Never want to feel like I’m pressuring them. It makes me… Feel sick, if I. I can’t do that.”

“What sort of men do you usually become involved with?”

“Young lads,” said Cecil. “Between eighteen and twenty, twenty-two, twenty-three. Athletic lads, normally, boys who’re into their sport, or into something – I’ve shagged dancers even, here and there, but normally it’s boxers, footballers, fencers, if they’re lighter-built. I’ve shagged heavier lads, especially when they’ve got the round face, youthful features, but not so much muscle-men. Valorous is muscular, of course, but he’s so fucking short, you know.”

“And their personalities?”

“Eh?”

“Their personalities,” repeated Majok. “You make it sound like you prefer for them to approach you than the other way around.”

“Yeah,” said Cecil, pressing his thumb so hard into the palm he felt the muscle distantly ache. “Sometimes, I’d be out in a bar – not really gay bars, I never went in them, but some shitty little dive next to a gym or by the racetrack, and some lad would come in who knew what he liked, what he wanted, he’d come right up to me. But normally it’d be at gyms or sports grounds, asking me to spot them, or I’d give advice on their form, help them do something new, teach ‘em, coach ‘em. Let them suggest going somewhere else or sucking me off, whatever – if they were a bit shyer, I’d rub their backs, their shoulders, work their thighs over or something. Let them touch me without pushing it.”

“Only ever at gyms or nearby pubs?”

“Not only. At the beach, down by the docks, sometimes. Here and there – in shops, if I saw a lad looking at me, I’d say I didn’t know what the fuck I was buying.”

“How many?”

“How many,” repeated Cecil. “I don’t know. Five or six a year, depending on if I had someone living with me.”

“That’s all?”

“I’m pretty old, mate, it adds up.”

“It does,” agreed Majok. “But that’s one man every two months. How long do your relationships last?”

“A few times on and off, here and there,” said Cecil. “Like I said, I never really had relationships, but at any one time, I’d be seeing these boys on and off – or they’d be sticking around and focusing on me a little more, and I’d let them.“

“Have you ever pursued a boy who wasn’t as interested in you?” asked Majok, and Cecil dug his thumbnail so hard into his palm that he left a crescent mark, so he pulled his hands apart and set them on the arms of the chair instead, not letting himself do it.

“Yeah,” said Cecil, swallowing. “When I was a young lad, you know. Before I was in the army, I’d… I didn’t know what the fuck I was at. I’d just sort of chase after people, men, women, not really my age, just people I found impressive or exciting. When I was too enthusiastic, I’d get brushed off as a creepy little prick, a faggot. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have social skills, I just forgot them – and it wasn’t about sex, exactly, just trying to be close to someone. Once I enlisted, I found it easier, fucked a few lads my own age, and then once I’d gone up through the ranks a bit, I was more confident.”

“The men and women you pursued, they were older than you?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Cecil. “They were adults, thirty, forty, fifty. I was only fourteen or so. But I have slept with people my own age, or older people, anyway. Not so much now, but… When I was a young man, once I was a drill sergeant, I, um…” He opened his mouth and for a second it was like it was completely full, not working, not functioning. “An older man fucked me. Over the course of three years or so, he regularly took me aside, for the whole of the time I served as a drill sergeant.”

“How old was he?” asked Majok.

Cecil sipped his drink. “I dunno,” he said. “Fifteen hundred or something insane like that.”

“Ah,” said Majok. “You mean the king regent.”

“Yeah.”

Cecil looked up at Majok’s face, clutching the mug hard between his hands, trying his best not to squeeze it too hard, fairly certain that it wouldn’t shatter, but not much wanting to risk it. Majok’s expression was completely neutral, even, with no anger in his eyes, but no real surprise there either, and Cecil exhaled hard.

“I wanted,” he said. “Can I tell you something?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Majok reminded him gently, and Cecil laughed, the sound bitter and sharp.

“Did your sister already tell you?” asked Cecil.

“I can’t read your mind, I won’t know what you’re referring to unless you tell me.”

“You’re full of shit, you know that?”

“It’s been suggested in the past.”

Cecil rolled his eyes, shuddering out a breath. “I needed angels,” he said. “Not— Not for me, only. But because if I went to someone else, there wasn’t any guarantee they wouldn’t be royalists, which would mean that when he talked about Wyllt, he’d be cut off, he’d be shut down. He needs to be able to… to talk about him. And maybe— And maybe I do, a bit. I’m not traumatised by him, it was a more positive experience for me, but I knew he was crazy, and I knew he was dangerous. And I know that he had an impact on me, and who I became – and that the only reason I didn’t suffer more is because I wasn’t a person to him.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Majok quietly. “That you weren’t a person to him?”

“I mean, um. There’s people like him – the people who play the games, who sit across from him at the table. There’s people like Valorous – the pieces on the board, the ones who take orders, who’re part of prophecies or predictions. Either way, they’re the people that get written down in history. Me, I’m not either of those. I’m invisible – I don’t exist.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“I… I don’t know. It was my lot in life, I grew up in a shitty little house in Skinningrove, my mum and dad and me and six brothers in a two-bed, you know. My dad was a steelworker until he wasn’t anymore. I knew I wasn’t anything when I was a kid, that I wasn’t gonna be anything when I got older.”

“You knew you weren’t going to be anything, or you didn’t think you deserved to be anything?” asked Majok – still calm, still easy, still oh-so-reasonable.

Cecil laughed, shaking his head. “Fuck off, Doc,” he said, and Majok chuckled quietly, leaning his chin on his knuckles. It wasn’t as if he was wrong, but that wasn’t the fucking point.

“Okay, we’ll leave that for another day. For now, keep going,” said Majok softly. “Skinningrove, six brothers, two-bedroom house. Tell me more.”

Cecil glanced at the clock, and then nodded, squeezing his mug again. “Uh, yeah,” he said, “okay,” and did.

* * *

Valorous was sitting back in the chair, his knees up to his chest, and he was playing with the hem of his hoodie, tugging and pulling at it. It was one of Cecil’s hoodies, and even though Cecil was taller than Valorous was, they were about the same size because Cecil was skinnier than Valorous was, but his frame was bigger, but nonetheless, Cecil’s hoodies were big on Valorous because he always bought them a size up so they’d soak up more sweat when he wore them home.

It smelt like Cecil, and it was ten years old, so the fabric was worn and comfortable and soft.

“You’re not insecure about your scars,” said Dot.

“No,” said Valorous firmly, no longer sure if it was true or not.

“You’ve got a lot of scars,” said Dot.

“Yeah.”

“Does Cecil mean all of them, or just the ones up your arm?”

“The ones up my arm, I think,” said Valorous, flexing his left hand and glancing down at the lightning scarring that poked out from under the loose cuff of the hoodie’s sleeve. He had the hood up on the hoodie and was huddled in it, so he knew that it wasn’t showing on his neck or on the side of his jaw – was that why he liked hoodies so much, and polo necks, and scarves? What, he’d just secretly hated his own fucking body for fourteen years?

“Why do you think he thinks that?” asked Dot.

“I don’t know,” muttered Valorous. “He just thinks I’m crazy about everything.”

“Does he?” asked Dot.

Valorous exhaled hard, looking away from her, and he moved his feet, pressing his heels down against the chair’s cushion again and again. He liked that the Majoks had armchairs in their offices, liked that he could sit right back and be cupped in by the winged back of the seat and the arms – he’d never liked the fucking armless chairs and sofas that Maybeetle had had in his office, or the various couches and chaises a lot of therapists seemed to like.

“No,” muttered Valorous irritably. “But yeah. I don’t know. Because I wear hoodies and shit – because I hide them a lot. But it’s not because I don’t want people looking at them, I don’t mind if people… It doesn’t bother me that people see them, or can see them. But if people see them, they know who I am. What I am.”

“It’s fair to say that a lot of people will recognise spell damage when they see it,” said Dot, nodding her head. “What is it you’re worried about, that people will assume you’re dangerous?”

“No,” said Valorous. “That doesn’t bother me – I use it sometimes, in fights, you know. Even if they don’t know who I am, they know that scarring like that in a mage pretty much guarantees a powerful opponent, someone who’s worth being frightened of. I use it in interrogations, sometimes, roll up my sleeves.”

“They’re useful,” said Dot, tilting her head and looking at Valorous thoughtfully. “They’re a tool just like your armour is, right, or another uniform might be? People make assumptions or show fear or intimidation based on the sight of them, and you can use that to your advantage.”

Yeah,” said Valorous, surprised by the relief in his voice as he said it, even though it wasn’t something he’d have been able to say, exactly, wouldn’t have compared his scars to his armour, but it was true.

“What about when you’re dating?” asked Dot, and then she laughed because Valorous automatically wrinkled his nose. “Sorry,” she said. “Not— dating. What about when you’re with men, when you’re flirting with them, or when you’re out in a club? Do you tend to wear short sleeves, or go shirtless?”

“Of course I do,” said Valorous, aware of the defensiveness in his voice even as it came out of his mouth, pressing his back hard back against the cushion of the chair. It was true. He did wear t-shirts sometimes when he was out in night clubs – he didn’t have any vests or sleeveless things or collared shirts, but he did have t-shirts, and he did wear them. He did normally still wear his jacket when he went into a club, though, but he’d worn crop tops and cropped leather jackets.

Fae clothes were more modest than human fashions in Cymru-Loegr, as a rule, so it wasn’t like he even looked for stuff that hid his arms. Everything he bought, everything that had been given to him while travelling, or that had been given to him as a gift by Myrddin or by anyone else. They tended to cover the arms, the belly – they might plunge at the chest sometimes, and sometimes clothes tended to show more leg than people might be used to.

“You wouldn’t go into a club in just a t-shirt,” said Dot. “Everyone would turn to look at you.”

“That’s not insecurity,” said Valorous. “That’s just common sense. If I’m going to make a statement, sure, fine, but if I actually want to dance or drink or fuck or have a good time? No. That’d be stupid.”

“It must be hard when you’re looking for a partner,” said Dot, “and people look at you and think you’re dangerous.”

Valorous didn’t say anything, didn’t like the way she’d phrased it or the way it made him feel, a sort of sickly prickliness all over his skin, slimy and filmy and burning like acid.

“I am dangerous,” said Valorous quietly. “If I wanted to blow Lashton to pieces I wouldn’t even need explosives. I could turn two square miles to dust if I put a little effort into it. Could probably do more than that before they managed to put me down.”

“Do you ever think about doing that?” asked Dot.

“To Lashton? Nah,” said Valorous. “But the point is, I could. I’ve killed a lot of people, and channelled a lot of magic. S’not like people are wrong to be scared of me.”

“Are your sexual partners often scared of you?” asked Dot, tilting her head. “Is that your thing, are you, um, a… a top?”

Valorous started laughing, and he couldn’t see the blush on Dot’s face – her skin was dark enough that something like that wouldn’t show much, wouldn’t darken like some people’s skin did if the actual red colour didn’t show, but he knew she was blushing because of how she turned her head away, putting her hand on her own cheek.

“Sorry,” she said, laughing herself. “I don’t… Is that the wrong word?”

“No, there’s tops. I’m not, though, I’m a bottom.”

“So you, you bottom-top?”

“You want to explain what you think that means?”

“Valorous, please, I’m trying my best.”

“Top from the bottom?” asked Valorous, and she nodded, laughing again, putting her head in her hands, and he grinned, pulling his hoodie more around his knees, leaning back. “No, not really. Sometimes, yeah, but I like to be dominated, normally. I like to play a brat, be a— Do you know what that means?”

“That you’re… badly behaved?” hazarded Dot, and Valorous wondered if she was putting on how embarrassed she was, if it was just a gambit to make him feel more comfortable – he did feel more comfortable. Did it matter if it was fake? If he was suspecting it, did that mean he was crazy, or…

Not helpful. Not right now. He was gripping tightly at his own ankles.

“Yeah, kind of,” said Valorous. “Dominant and submissive means that you have someone who’s commanding the situation, and someone who’s letting them take control – but a brat, that’s like, someone who acts out, who submits but isn’t perfectly obedient. You act out to invite the other person to punish you, especially if they’re a disciplinarian, or a daddy – like Cecil. Cecil’s a daddy dom.”

Dot was looking at him with a distinctly overwhelmed expression on her face, and Valorous strummed his finger against the taut edge of the hoodie’s hem.

“So I like to be dominated,” said Valorous. “And I like… I like to provoke people into doing it violently. Into really fucking me up.”

“Okay,” said Dot. “And is that purely out of masochism, because you enjoy the pain?”

“Not exactly,” said Valorous. “I like… It’s the same as exercise. I have a high tolerance for pain and stimulation and exercise, too – I need to be pushed hard to feel it. And I like to be made to feel like I’m not in control.”

“Are you ever not in control?” asked Dot, and Valorous nodded.

“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, sure.”

“But you just said how powerful you are, that people are right to be frightened of you,” pointed out Dot, and Valorous pressed his lips together, tilting his head from one side to the other as he tried to figure out how to word his response.

“I like… It’s not about stupidity, exactly, or arrogance. But I like men who think they can control me – who get off on controlling me. They know I’m fucking dangerous, they know I could kill them, but they convince themselves that I couldn’t, or they break me down so much that they can trust that I wouldn’t. And I’ve fucked men more powerful than me, or as powerful than me.”

“Cecil?”

“Cecil?” repeated Valorous, and then laughed, confused, shaking his head. “Nah. Cecil’s an old fucking man. I could have turned him to dust when I was fifteen, when I was fucking eleven, he knows that. I could do it even easier now. He doesn’t have any magical command at all – he can’t even do basic enchantment from his GCSE or his O-Level or whatever they did a thousand years ago. And he can fight me hand to hand, but only if I don’t use magic – and only if we don’t use weapons.”

Dot stared at him for a second, and then asked, “Do you two fight a lot?”

“Not seriously,” said Valorous. “But yeah, at his gym, we box, we wrestle, or we fight. We play. Back at school he was the only person who took me seriously until Myrddin took me on as a student, and sponsored me, put me in with different trainers and taskmasters. I was at a military school before I came to Saint Idloes, and everything was at a lower level – Cecil didn’t have the same resources I had there, but he still rode me pretty hard, and he set me and the other strongest kids extra exercises, made sure we were pushed to our limits.”

“And that’s what he does for you as a… dominant,” said Dot, only stumbling slightly over the word. “As a daddy. He pushes you to your limit.”

“Yeah,” said Valorous. “He wrestles me, pins me down, spanks me, chokes me. Gets me off – or edges me.”

He watched Dot’s lips move, repeating edges, watched her write it down.

“Does he touch your scars?” asked Dot, and Valorous didn’t know what to do with the sudden hot fury that flooded his body, the way his lips curled.

“What the fuck? No. Why would he?”

“You said he holds you down,” said Dot. “Does he do that by the shoulders, by your wrists?”

“Either. Both. Other ways. But he doesn’t— He just touches my arm, not the scars.”

“They’re sensitive?”

“I guess. Not much more than my other arm – it’s not more sensitive, the scar tissue, or less, it’s just different. Sometimes where the pores are damaged, I get gross build-up of, um, it’s not a spot or a zit, it’s not like an infection, it’s just like, whiteheads – the pores are at weird angles or don’t close properly because they’re half scar tissue, so sometimes I have to work out whiteheads in the shower, or blackheads, sometimes. I got, um, a pore of winer on the back of my upper arm, like, just here—” He gestured, pressing up under his armpit, cupping the back of his upper arm. “Do you know what that is? It’s like a fucking. It’s a blackhead, but it’s so big that it calcifies like stone. When I realised it was there I freaked the fuck out and pulled it out with a razor because I kept trying to squeeze it out and I couldn’t get the right angle, so I just fucking scraped it out after trying to steam it out in the shower. I cut my arm open, but it came out solid, like, like I had a fucking pebble in my arm. So I’m there, in the shower, and I’m bleeding and trying to pick this thing up to get rid of it without fucking gagging, and feeling back under my arm and feeling the fucking, the fucking gap it left, under the scar tissue, so it’s three textures at once, right? Like, normal skin, the scar tissue where it’s raised and rippling, and then the bit where I’m touching into it, where it’s new skin and it’s impacted and there’s, there’s dead skin and fragments of the fucking blackhead, and it’s dimpled like a fucking pit because it had a fucking rock in it, and then I scrubbed it so hard I had it bleeding again—”

“Valorous,” said Dot, and Valorous heaved in a breath, because he felt light-headed, and hadn’t realised he wasn’t breathing. “Breathe in for me, one, two, three, four, five… And hold, that’s it, You’ve done this before. Breathe out, two, three, four, five…”

The dizziness took a while to go, and it took a while longer for his heart to stop beating so fast and his chest to stop hurting. It wasn’t tunnel vision, exactly – he’d had that before, and this wasn’t it, wasn’t even a full fucking panic attack even though he knew what that was like, was just… Something.

“So,” said Dot quietly. “It’s hard to keep your arm clean, as clean as the rest of your body. Hard to look after the scars, old injuries. And you’re distressed by whiteheads and blackheads.”

“I… Yeah. Fine. I guess.”

“Do you get dry skin?”

“Not really,” said Valorous quietly. “It, um, when it was healing, the skin in between flaked a lot, and peeled off like I was a lizard or something. But it’s, the actual scarring is kind of… Yeah. I don’t have dry skin or flakes of it or get rashes, not now. But people don’t see that, I’m not insecure about it – it was the fact that I didn’t know. That I couldn’t see it, and I didn’t feel it until I was in the shower and I reached back and thought it was a fucking cyst or a curse or something. I lost my goddamn mind.”

“Are you worried about it happening again?”

“No, because now I scrub my arm twice, all over, and do it twice as hard as I did before,” muttered Valorous. “Everything, I do that too, but especially where I’ve got scar tissue or just, places where the skin is weird.”

“It’s not dirty,” said Dot. “Acne of any kind isn’t just a sign of being unclean – human pores often let in oils and skin cells, dust. It’s natural.”

“A massive pebble with an oxygenised surface on the outside, this big, that’s natural?”

“It wasn’t infected,” said Dot gently. “It wasn’t dirty. You didn’t see it because it was on the back of your arm – you didn’t do anything wrong, not finding it until you did. It’s uncomfortable, it’s distressing, but didn’t you just say that the skin around your arm is more prone to this than elsewhere on your body?”

“It doesn’t mean I’m fucking insecure about it,” said Valorous.

“Do you like how it looks?” asked Dot, and Valorous opened his mouth, but didn’t say anything. He closed it again after a few seconds.

“It’s part of my body,” he said finally. “It’s like my fucking— It’s part of me.”

“Okay,” said Dot. “But do you like how it looks?”

“I don’t know,” said Valorous. “I don’t look at myself.” Dot’s face didn’t change, but he still snapped, “Not like that. I just mean, I’m not fucking vain. I don’t need to sit around staring at myself – I know what I look like, I know people find me attractive. That I am attractive. But my mirror at home is in the wardrobe, I only use it to make sure my hair is okay, or make-up, if I’m doing that.”

“Would you find a scar like this attractive on someone else? I suppose that’s what I’m asking?”

“Myrddin’s got one,” said Valorous. “On his, um… around his belly? You can see it spreading out from his navel, the same lightning scars, and they’re on his organs, too. It hurts, or whatever, probably, but it’s not like he shows it.”

“You found that attractive?” asked Dot.

“It’s— Yeah. I don’t know. It’s part of him. He’s attractive.”

“Would he be more attractive without it?”

“It’s a sign of power.”

“Okay. Would you be more attractive without yours?”

“I don’t— I don’t know,” snapped Valorous, and Dot nodded.

“Okay,” she said. “Shall we have some tea? Or cocoa?”

“You think I’m insecure,” said Valorous.

“Mmm,” said Dot, pressing her lips together and looking thoughtful. “About your scar, maybe. But that doesn’t mean you hate yourself, or that you hate your body – you care about keeping clean, and it freaks you out that you feel like you can’t keep it clean; you like to be the centre of attention, but you like to choose when you’re the centre of attention, and you don’t want to be that all the time. Sometimes, you want to be anonymous, to go unnoticed – and your scar makes that difficult, especially because it covers such a large part of your body.”

Valorous felt like a firework suddenly doused, and he didn’t know whether that was a good feeling or a bad feeling, feeling that fizzing under his skin suddenly drop off.

“Oh,” he said.

“Does that make sense?” asked Dot. “Match up with what you’re feeling?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Most of it. How do you… I know you can feel what I feel. I know that’s what you— With the telepathy and shit. But how the fuck do you, do you just put it into, I don’t even think about all that. Or know it. And it’s me, it’s how I feel, that’s from inside my head, and I don’t even know what the fuck is happening in here.”

“You know,” said Dot, “they’ve done studies on different people’s languages. The more words there are for colours in someone’s language, the more colours they perceive exist. If your word for red also encompasses orange and pink, you only see red – whereas if you have those other three words, you see three colours. The more words you have for the world around you – descriptive words, nouns, concepts – the better you can comprehend and understand it, and the better you can describe it to someone else. If we can put it into words, we can communicate it – if we can communicate it, to ourselves, to someone else, we can shed light on it, we can examine it, we can explore where it comes from, and look for solutions.”

“I have words,” said Valorous. “I know… I know fucking, they used to make me do one of those wheels, and point to things. Happy. Sad. Angry. Tired. I’m still shit at it. I’m never gonna be— I can’t do that.”

“Maybe you won’t be able to,” said Dot. “But you’ve gotten this far without that skill, right?”

Valorous blinked at her.

“Even if it never gets easy, we can make it easier – even if you never master it, we can get you through a little of it.”

She said it like it was simple, like it was easy, like it was no big deal at all.

“Cocoa,” said Valorous.

“Sure,” said Dot, and went over to the pot. Valorous stared at her back, feeling strangely hollow.

“Do you want me to write down any more BDSM terms for you to look up?” he asked, looking at Dot’s notes and then looking away when they made his head spin.

“Sure,” said Dot, chuckling. “Do you have any book recommendations?”

“No,” said Valorous. “But Cecil does, Cecil will. We can ask him after – he’s got hundreds of books about shit like that. Sex. Trauma. Child abuse. Kink. Queerness. All that, that theory shit, and the psychological basis of, you know, everything that gets you off, and trauma.”

“Is that an area where he has power over you?” asked Dot. “You have a lot of magical power, but he’s got all this expertise in trauma, mental illness, sexuality, psychology. Where you’re an expert in magic and combat, he’s an expert in that, isn’t he?”

“I guess,” said Valorous. “Not just— It’s not just for people. He uses it for the dogs. Rescues. It’s some of the same stuff.”

“But you don’t worry that he’d use it against you,” said Dot, turning to look at him. “You know that he’s better than you at this, that he’s got skills here you don’t, that he can and could use it to manipulate or take advantage of you, just like you could overpower him. Right?”

“Right,” said Valorous. “I guess. But he wouldn’t. Like I told you before, he could have fucked me when I was a kid, and he didn’t. It’s the same now, he knows he has that advantage, but he wouldn’t. Like, for sex, but not… Not to hurt me.”

“That’s good, right?” asked Dot.

She already knew the answer, but he nodded anyway.

He didn’t have to tell her how sweet to make the cocoa – she knew how he liked it, not too sweet, with a hint of spice, and it was a relief, not having to ask for it out loud.

* * *

The lad stripped off his jeans as soon as they were in the house, wriggling out of them and kicking off his shoes, and as soon as Cecil sat down in his chair, Valorous was on top of him, straddling his lap and tipping forward, face crammed against Cecil’s shoulder.

“That bad, huh?” he asked, rubbing Valorous’ back with one hand and scratching Ruby’s ear with the other, because she’d come up and out of her bed and walked over with her tail wagging shyly. She was looking nervously up at Valorous, concerned, and he rubbed at her forehead as she leaned her big skull into Valorous’ side.

He reached back, blindly petting her alongside Cecil’s own hand, but his body stayed limp against Cecil’s chest, crammed in so that he could get as much skin to skin contact as he could.

“Didn’t expect you to get me to set her a fucking reading list,” muttered Cecil, and he felt Valorous smile, but the lad didn’t say anything. “Bath?”

“I want to stay here,” said Valorous, and Cecil nodded, squeezing his arse before going back to rubbing his hand up and down his back, letting Ruby rest her chin in his other hand.

“Alright, lad,” said Cecil quietly, and pressed a kiss to the side of his temple, felt the clamminess of Valorous’ skin under his lips – she’d had him sweating earlier, and Cecil could smell it. “We’ll stay here, then.”

“Thanks,” said Valorous.

Little prick fell asleep after five minutes, and Cecil didn’t shove him off even when his thigh went to sleep underneath his weight.

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