Chapter Twelve

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It was probably the most amount of food that Cecil had ever seen Valorous eat in one sitting, and he turned that over in his mind as Cicero ordered another round of drinks for the table – Cecil and Coshel were still on beers, but Cicero and Valorous were now sharing a jug of sangria.

Cecil had seen Valorous drunk before – not infrequently, he’d go out in Lashton with people Cecil had never heard of or people he had, would go out and get fucked six ways from Sunday, or go to some underground fight scene, or do something else entirely. Regardless of what he was doing, he’d sometimes come home tipsy and stumbling, would fall into bed with him.

He'd never, he didn’t think, watched Valorous get drunk. They never drank together, he and Cecil, not to the point of being beyond the slightest of buzzes – and Cecil tended not to drink as much as he had, before. He only really drank when Valorous was there, and not much.

He’d thought about it, though.

He’d thought about it on the evenings when Valorous went out scowling and in the worst of moods, in a way that made Cecil’s heart flutter and his own body feel tight and tense, because Valorous was going out to fucking hurt himself, to let someone tear him to shreds until he didn’t feel anything anymore; he’d come home tipsy and satiated and tired, marks and bites all over his body, his hole fucked open, his body limp and lax. He’d thought about the journey in between those two states, how Valorous was when he was drunk and relaxed, if he giggled and laughed, if he got touchy-feely. How horny he got, and how quickly – if it was him initiating things, or if it was just that people got him drunk until they thought he was easy enough to overpower, hero that he was.

The latter, probably.

Valorous didn’t say much about it, but Cecil assumed it was the latter.

Now, he was a little flush in his cheeks, and he was leaning across his chair to lean into Cecil’s body, almost pressing his face into the crook of Cecil’s neck and shoulder, but keeping his eyes toward Cicero and Coshel. They didn’t go out much in Lashton – too many people knew Cecil on sight, and far too many of them knew Valorous. In Camelot, it was the same, it was even more so, but people saw knights walking around every day, saw other so-called heroes of the fucking realm – a few people had come over to say hello, to ask him to sign shit in the course of their meal, but out of four of them, three had also greeted Penllwynog by name, and said they wanted to see him in the arena again soon.

“Cecil hates cops,” Valorous was saying.

“Does anybody like cops?” asked Cicero mildly, arching an eyebrow. “I mean, my impression of your average policeman is that what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in brute force. The average detective, I can only assume, is not much better, merely that he wears a collared shirt and is spared the indignity of a high-visibility jacket.”

Coshel looked sideways at Cicero, and then said dryly, “I’ve met cops who were alright. I’ve met cops who were cunts. System as it stands is built to encourage the cunts.”

Cecil huffed out a laugh, resting his hand on Valorous’ shoulder as Valorous nodded, his chin jabbed into the soft meat of Cecil’s chest and dragging back and forth on it.

“You ever been arrested?” asked Cecil, and Coshel looked across at him, shook his head.

“Nah,” he said. “Got fucking harassed a lot on the street by cops when I was a kid, big brown lad that I was. I was pretty tall, pretty hairy by the time I was thirteen, fourteen, so they tended to treat me like I was already a grown fucking man. Then they’d realise who my dad was, or they’d recognise me, and they’d back off a bit. Say some bollocks about me being “one of the good ones”.”

“In Lashton?”

“Mm,” said Coshel, running a palm over his face, scratching at his beard. “I met a few police that my dad used to work with, uh…” He exhaled slowly, his eyes far away for a second, and Cecil looked at Cicero’s suddenly very engaged, interested expression, the curiosity obvious on his face; he couldn’t lean back to look at Valorous, but he could feel that Valorous wasn’t stiffening, but that was no surprise. Cecil wondered how long he’d stalked Coshel Fenwick, what the fuck he’d stalked him for, and maybe he’d ask later on – maybe the lad would even tell him.

“You don’t have to talk about it,” said Cecil. “Your dad.”

“You were a teacher?” asked Coshel, looking across at Cecil, and his eyes narrowed just slightly, his expression more thoughtful, his lips shifting under his beard.

“I was a teacher, yeah, a long time,” said Cecil. “I was teaching then. Saw the stories, read them. I never taught any of the kids he was responsible for – I taught at Idloes Sant, and most of your dad’s victims were either in foster care or otherwise dirt poor. If they hadn’t been, they’d have gone to fancy private doctors or fancy therapies and shit. Mendis was free, and apart from being free, he was often court-appointed.”

“I do beg your pardon,” said Cicero, “but what precisely am I missing here?”

Valorous suddenly laughed, louder than he meant to, Cecil would bet, and even when he quietened, leaning still into Cecil’s side, leaning into him, he stared over at Cicero. “You don’t know?” he asked, softly, wonderingly. “You’re with him, and you don’t know?”

Cicero blinked, taken by surprise, looking offended and caught off-guard; Coshel, in contrast, was doing a kind of angry half-smile at Valorous, like he couldn’t believe that one man could be such a little cunt.

“I wouldn’t say he’s with me,” said Coshel quietly, smoothly. “I’m not exactly about to go home and meet his parents, and fuck knows he’s not meeting my mother.” Turning to look at Cicero, he said, “My father was Doctor Sampath Mendis. He was a fleshturner, same as me.”

“Right,” said Cicero slowly, glancing between Coshel and the other two, his eyes flitting back and forth between them.

“He worked in public healthcare. Started doing consultation work with the police, with social workers, schools, for abuse cases, shit like that. Because when young kids break bones, especially multiple times, it can stunt their growth. Cause issues later on. A lot of abused kids have trauma. Mental, emotional, psychological issues. I don’t exactly know the specifics of his career progression – I know he went from consulting in abuse cases to being a fucking abuse case. D’you know what ABA is?”

“Not the Swedish pop band, I suppose?”

Valorous laughed again, quieter this time, and Cecil rubbed his thumb over the back of his shoulder, watching Cicero’s face as he relaxed just marginally, seemed so happy that Valorous was approving, that Valorous seemed to care, that he found Cicero’s jokes funny.

Coshel’s smile was grim, and Cecil was aware that his own face probably looked about the same – there was a sick feeling in his stomach.

“They do it to disabled kids, mostly,” said Cecil quietly. “Autistics, kids with ADHD or learning difficulties, kids with tics, obsessives. Kids who’re already traumatised. They call it Applied Behavioural Analysis, but there’s no real analysis in it. It’s a bit like dog training as performed by idiots, to be honest. Good behaviour is rewarded. Bad behaviour is punished. Except that good behaviour is when they don’t look or act abnormal. Bad behaviour is when you can tell. That’s already pretty shitty, right?”

Cicero slowly nodded his head.

“So a kid makes noises you don’t like. Too loud. Too autistic. You can tell that the kid is disabled. Bad behaviour. What do you do? Do you talk to the kid, try and understand the kid’s needs, see if they’re okay? No. You scare them out of it. You torture them out of it. Used to be you’d hit them, or shock them with electricity, but your average ABA therapist realises the shitty optics of that. So nowadays, you bark at the kid, tell them no, snap at them. Hold them down. Kid gets excited, flaps his hands? Pin them down. Lock them in a room. Kid says it’s too bright, but they slur their words? Have a speech impediment? Turn all the lights up. Anything to hurt the kid, scare them out of it. Make them act better. Make them act right.”

He sounded angry, Cecil was fully aware, as he talked, and he shifted his jaw, trying to work a little of the tension out of it to stop himself from gritting his teeth – it wasn’t as if he was trying to hold himself back, wasn’t as if he wanted to fucking say it was all fine, but he liked Coshel, from the time he’d spent with him. He didn’t much want to take this shit out on him. It wasn’t as if Cecil wanted to be held accountable for his father’s fucking sins.

Coshel’s eyes were down on the table, his fingers tapping against the table leg.

“Sampath Mendis,” said Cecil, “worked with some social workers, therapists. With Doctor Mendis, they didn’t have to hit the kids, but they didn’t even have to hold them down. Fleshturner, right? So he could reach into a kid’s body and… Kid flaps his hands? Bounces his knees? Make it so he can’t move. Kid hums, moans, while she concentrates on her homework? Reach into her throat and cut off her vocal cords for a while. What’s the harm, right? He can put it back, after.”

Cicero’s mouth was open, his eyes slightly wide. It was a quiet, distant horror, utterly surprised, and Cecil watched the movement in his face as he remembered he wasn’t alone, that Coshel was right there beside him – he put his hand on Coshel’s shoulder, squeezed, and Coshel didn’t reciprocate or reach back for him, but gave a nod, smiling tightly at him.

“S’fucked,” said Coshel. “On its own, it’s fucked. It wasn’t just the fucking paralysis either, there was other shit he did to the kids – electrified them without using electricity, did shit to trigger rashes if they touched themselves wrong, and I mean like… There was one case where if a kid touched herself, her hand would come out in a rash. So her parents would know. So they could punish her.”

“And he worked with rapists, too,” said Valorous. “Medical workers mostly – this one speech therapist, he got done for that. There were others that did time, or got dropped quietly or loudly. Like, three, I think.” He laughed, and Cecil heard the edge in it this time, the brink of real, complete fury that didn’t come out too often from Valorous but that was always brewing under the surface, “It’s like, oh, you can paralyse a kid? Make it so they can’t cry out? Wow. Who’da known that some nonces would be into that?”

Cecil squeezed his shoulder, and he didn’t do it gently – he did it as hard as he could, and he felt Valorous relax just slightly, lean into Cecil’s hand as he sat up a bit straighter.

“He did claim not to be aware of the nonces,” said Cecil, resisting the urge to glance at Coshel as he said it, and instead looking across directly at Cicero. “I mean, guy killed himself. Safe to say, he pretty badly regretted his involvement after accomplishing the opposite of do no harm.”

“Are you licensed?” asked Valorous. “You said you were a fleshturner, and you obviously know how to practice.”

“I did my exams, got my license, yeah,” said Coshel quietly. “I only studied the applied magical science though, I’m not a doctor. It doesn’t even count as a degree. I thought about going into veterinary science, but I didn’t want to spend all that time in a university.”

“So you work at one,” said Valorous.

Coshel smiled wryly at him. “Yep,” he answered. “I suppose I do.”

Valorous was leaning back in his chair now, his head tipping back into the meat of Cecil’s arm, leaning back into his elbow and turning his face to press a kiss against his forearm.

“Is it easy?” he asked. “For you?”

“It feels natural,” said Coshel quietly. “Not as natural as breathing or swallowing, but as natural as— swimming. Or riding a horse. It becomes second-nature. It’s more than having the skills, it’s cultivating the instinct, and then you achieve a natural balance.”

“Fleshturners get distracted,” said Valorous – there was a faint smile on his lips, but his eyes were intent and focused, and Cecil wondered if he was doing it on purpose, pretending to be more drunk than he was. Was this just how drunk he acted, earlier on in the evening? Did he learn to act this way?

Get taught to act this way?

“Distracted?” Coshel repeated.

“Mm, by the work, by the— I don’t know, the feeling, I guess? The rhythm, or your cultivated instinct, whatever you want to call it. Fleshturners aren’t that common, or weren’t in my line of work, but it’s quite easy to deal with them. To make your body, um— D’you know how it works, Cec?”

Cec.

Cecil didn’t repeat it back to Valorous, but he felt himself smile as he looked across at him, saw Valorous’ expression. A little dazed, maybe not as dazed as he actually was.

“Fleshturning?” asked Cecil. “Fleshturner charges their hands with magic, reach into someone’s body. Moves shit about.”

Coshel sniggered, and Cicero couldn’t help but laugh as well, reaching up and running his hand back through his hair.

“Yeah,” said Valorous, head almost lolling as he leaned it back into Cecil’s elbow, his body relaxed and comfortable. “The specifics are all about biochemistry, atomic frequency – the basic resonance of an atom, of the cells in your body. Bone versus muscle and flesh versus blood.” God, and he said it so fucking casually. Cecil didn’t know how much of the science he really understood, didn’t know how much he even needed to understand, but even if Valorous wasn’t as much of an expert as he seemed to Cecil, he could probably delve into a lot of it on his own, could probably do complicated diagrams showing the atom, showing the basic building blocks of everybody’s cell, everybody’s body. “A fleshturner like, melts their own flesh and bone into what’s effectively pure magic, right? So they can pass through someone else’s skin, pass through their flesh, and then they can manipulate what’s there on different levels – manipulate on the physical level, change and morph bones and skin and muscle, focus on chemical or vitamin content, or blood, or nerves. The fleshturner is focused on all that shit, on what they’re reaching for. Which means if they’re doing it on another witch, someone else competent in using any kind of active magic, you can follow that current and burn them from the inside. Like electrocuting somebody that’s soaking wet.”

He giggled, and it was so unlike him that Cecil couldn’t help but smile – it was an unhinged sound, and it wasn’t actually feminine so much as it was an affected effeminacy. It probably worked to freak a lot of people out – it definitely worked on Cicero and Coshel.

Of course, Cicero looked less intimidated and more intrigued; Coshel looked distantly concerned, not looking like he knew how to deal with it.

“You do that a lot?” he asked. “Kill fleshturners?”

“It doesn’t kill them,” said Valorous. “It doesn’t have to. But you can hurt them a lot. You do this to someone right, put enough power behind it while they’re trying to reach in and hurt you, and they just… melt. Takes hours for them to reconstitute.”

Coshel had taken on a slightly green look, his skin looking a little chalky, probably as he imagined what that would feel like; Cicero didn’t look even remotely sick. He looked fascinated, was leaning forward with his brow furrowed, his lips pursed on concentration.

“How would one do that?” he asked.

It was like he forgot who he was sitting next to, like he forgot everything except the magic, learning how to do something, learning a new trick. Beside him, Coshel blinked, glanced at him sideways, and Cicero didn’t even look at him at first, was fully concentrated on Valorous.

He felt Coshel’s gaze on him and faltered, then reached up and touched his hair, smiled at him in a way that was so handsome, so glowing, as to be disarming, though Coshel didn’t look particularly disarmed. He was probably used to it.

“What?” he asked. “It’s not as though I’m asking to do that to you.”

“No,” murmured Coshel. “I didn’t think you were, lad.”

“Never mind,” said Cicero, shifting in his seat, but he didn’t look as though he felt guilty for asking, and Cecil didn’t imagine he was. “Did you,” he started, glancing back at Valorous, and then he looked at Coshel, looked at him thoughtfully, very analytically, like he was studying him, and studying him for the first time at that. “If it was like learning to swim, you didn’t do it by accident, did you?”

“By accident?” Coshel repeated, head tilting. “What do you mean?”

“Never lost your temper? Had nightmares?”

“Oh, and…? Yeah, yeah,” said Coshel. “Not for fucking years, but yeah, when I was a teenager starting out, yeah. Fucking woke up from a wet dream when I was fourteen with my arm melted into my fucking crotch. Spent weeks shaving pubes off my wrist.”

How the fuck was a man not meant to laugh at that?

It was fucking horrible, frightening, but Cecil laughed anyway – not as hard, not with the same understanding, he would bet, as Cicero and Valorous.

“You?” asked Coshel, and Cicero nodded, leaning forward and resting his chin on his palm, his fingers tapping against his lips, his moustache.

“Oh, yes,” he murmured. “I had a nasty temper when I was a little boy – I wasn’t nearly as bad as Rhea was when she was young, but I was dreadful before the age of nine or so. Once I was, eleven, twelve – once I was old enough, effectively, to be lulled by the appeal of attractive, oiled-up men to do my exercises and pursue my studies, I was much more controlled. But I used to… I’d bury myself in a big pile of books, and if anyone attempted to drag me out, I’d set things on fire, shock people. Make the ground tremor or the wind pick up.”

Cecil was very aware, all of a sudden, of the fact that he was at a table with three people who were all real witches, who could all command magic directly, and not just work it raw, but do it so naturally they could do it without thinking. Without wanting to. Kids, with—

“And the nightmares, God,” said Cicero, and he laughed, resting his face in his hands with his fingers on his cheeks, his lips smiling. His teeth were perfect, white and shiny. Cecil wondered how much his family’d spent on dentists, big family like theirs. “Me and my siblings, obviously, all my cousins, the whole family, you know, we have dampening charms written into our bedposts – I mean, bearing in mind, we’re an old family, a lot of these pieces are heirlooms. A lot of the enchantment is original, not just older than me or my parents, some of this rune-writing is three hundred, four hundred years old. I come from a military family, Cecil, so growing up we’d have bedroom inspections come the evening – well, inspections for everything, frankly, our uniforms, our fingernails, our teeth, but, yes, our rooms as well. Morning inspections would entail turning our bedroom enchantments off – evening inspections would culminate in activating them for the night through, you know? Well, one night, I was— I think I was about fifteen, and my little brother, Julius, he’d have been thirteen. Most of the family were out at some event or other – I was excluded because I’d lit an unrelated fire in protest of something I can’t actually remember,” Valorous was laughing beside Cecil, his head in his hands, and it was a real laugh, not a creepy little giggle, “and Julius was excluded because he was just too young. And really, I mean, Julius is— He’s sweet, you know, he’s my little brother, and I actually think he’d be really very capable if he’d grow a bit of spine, but he’s just so shy, you know? He gets intimidated and overwhelmed, he really doesn’t know how to establish himself. Perhaps it’s not fair, but my parents rather made an emphasis of his age to justify leaving him out sometimes, just so he couldn’t embarrass anyone, you know.”

He said it so casually. So fucking easily.

It made Cecil’s hair stand on end, made his fucking teeth feel on edge, and the funny thing about Valorous was that he didn’t stiffen. He shifted in his seat and the movement was almost sinewy in how goddamn deliberate it was, so fucking smooth, so subtle, and Cicero didn’t even fucking notice.

Coshel did, maybe.

“So we turned off the enchantments, you know. We were the only people in the house except for the staff, and none of them would come upstairs, so we were watching horror movies together and drinking stolen liquor out of the cabinet. Julius fell asleep first, and I just picked him up and put him in his own bed, went back to mine… kept watching. Had the most awful nightmares, I recall them very much in flashes of violence and gore – woke up screaming. And not just screaming, unfortunately, but surrounded by fire on all ends. I rather ruined a significant part of the outer wall, and much of the attic storage with my inferno.”

He laughed, shaking his head. Cecil looked at him, and he thought about how the lad had next to no scars on the whole of his body after lighting his fucking house on fire.

Antique furniture. Hundreds of years old, for generations of mages just like him, all of them in the same house, designed especially so that shit couldn’t happen, and here he was fucking laughing about it.

“I had enchantments like that when I was in dormitories at military school,” said Valorous. “Ours didn’t turn on and off, and they weren’t particularly subtle, either. You couldn’t even light a candle or disinfect a surface – because we were such young children, obviously. At Sant Idloes they dosed any unstable or uncontrolled mage with a magical soporific, anything to induce a dreamless sleep.”

“Isn’t that worse than the enchantments?” asked Coshel, and Valorous laughed.

“Both are pretty awful,” he muttered. “Neither dampening fields nor drugging someone are a real substitute for teaching them to actually control themselves.”

“Control themselves while sleeping?” asked Cecil.

“Yeah,” said Valorous. “Meditative techniques, they’re one thing, but it’s like— You wouldn’t just decide to drug someone or use magic in their room to stop them from pissing themselves at night. You’d do therapy, behavioural therapy, physical therapy.”

“They use medication as part of therapy for bedwetting,” said Cecil.

Yeah,” said Valorous frustratedly, “but you wouldn’t just go, oh, that’s our first and only solution, we’ll medicate you and call it done. It would be part of a course of actions, right? Like, addressing the fucking, like, the underlying cause.”

“Well, most people grow out of it naturally,” said Cicero. “Bedwetting. Magical overextension and outbursts during nightmares or strong emotion as well.”

“The people who don’t are normally traumatised,” said Cecil, and he watched Coshel’s face, which stayed engaged and focused, and Valorous’, which didn’t move. Cicero’s frowned, his nose wrinkling slightly, his head tilting. “Some kids start wetting the bed again after a recent trauma – eating disorder, sudden death. Assault, rape. The kids who got dosed at Sant Idloes weren’t being dosed with, what, valerian and poppy? Because they hadn’t grown up, or because they were deficient. Most of them had had the shit beaten out of them too many times, had been raped, had seen a parent die. Same for the kids that get sent abroad to specialist schools for dangerously magical kids.”

Cicero was staring at Valorous’ hand, the one that had lightning scars sticking out from under the sleeve of his hoodie, and Valorous noticed, immediately reached across to pour himself more sangria, the last of the jug.

“Where are you two staying tonight?” asked Cicero.

Cecil opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, Valorous said, “You got a guest room?”

“Of course,” said Cicero, reaching across the table and sliding his finger over the back of Valorous’ hand, touching against his wrist. “You two can retire to it, after the four of us are done.”

Cecil blinked, and then he looked across at Coshel, who looked about as surprised as he was. They smiled at each other, both of them with their rabid fucking twinks beside them, and Coshel waved for Ezio to bring the check.

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