Cecil glanced at the reflection of Valorous in the mirror as he dragged the electric razor over his face, buzzing down the stubble to nothing. Valorous was under the spray of the shower, the curtain pulled to the side, and he could see the way that the lad was scrubbing hard at his body. He did that, scrubbed very hard, as though he wouldn’t be clean until he dragged off the top layer of his skin, and he suppressed the urge to wince as he started on his left arm.
There was something strangely beautiful in it, the ripple of the scarring up one arm. It started a little past the wrist, and then it went back and forth up his arm like the cracks of where water used to run in a dry riverbed, like the shapes of glue in something shattered that had been put back together, like the marks a lightning strike left after it hit.
It went all the way up one arm, and then curved around the top of his shoulder, a few stray strikes stretching further out, reaching toward the top of his chest and up the side of his neck, touching his cheek.
He scrubbed at that arm sometimes like he was trying to rip it off.
“Hey, kid,” said Cecil, and Valorous stopped with his wire sponge stopping in the opening of his elbow, looking at him askance. “I think you’re clean.”
Valorous stared at him, expression blank, and then turned under the spray of the shower, letting the water run down his back and over his back.
“Are you working today?” he asked.
“Nope,” said Cecil, putting his razor back on its charger. “I’m gonna take the dog on a hike.”
“Hike?” Valorous repeated, and he turned his head to look at Cecil, the water running down over his face, his hair a black mop around it.
“Mm,” hummed Cecil, pulling his shirt on over his head. “You didn’t see my pack on the table?”
“I thought you were just following my advice,” said Valorous. “Clearing out old crap.” He turned away again before he turned off the spray and then stepped out, taking the towel that Cecil held out to him. “You’re going camping?”
“Nah,” said Cecil. “Gonna take the Gwrthryfel Path north-west from Lashton woods, as if I was going on for Medalton, and then I’ll change over and start following the Prince’s Route instead, go up ‘til we get to Little Harken.”
“Harken?” Valorous repeated, looking at him with a sort of cold incredulity.
“That’s over an hour’s drive away,” he said.
“On the motorway, yeah,” agreed Cecil. “Go on foot, it’s about… eight hours.”
“Eight hours,” Valorous repeated. “You’re going to take that poor dog and make her walk for eight hours.”
“Yeah,” said Cecil. “It’s seven now, start walking at eight, get out from Lashton woods by nine… Stop for lunch at about one, rest an hour or so, get into Harken by four or five o’clock. Have a pint. Get the seven o’clock back home.”
Valorous was silent, and Cecil waited patiently as he pulled on his trousers, belting them tight around his waist, then sat on the toilet to pull on his socks, dragging them up around his calves. He knew it was coming, watching Valorous quickly swipe over his face not with a razor, but with a fancy little spell that left him completely clean-shaven. He didn’t even look in the mirror to do it, just cleared off his face and then pulled his own shirt on.
When Cecil’s hand was on the door, Valorous asked, “Can I come?”
“Dunno,” said Cecil, leaving the door ajar as he went out into the hall, almost tripping over the dog because she was waiting right outside the bathroom and had jumped up when he’d come out, wagging her tail. “Can you? Here, Rubes, downstairs, come on.”
Valorous shoved in front of him when Cecil was stood at the hob, and Cecil obediently stepped back and let him take over cooking, immediately clucking his tongue in disapproval and turning the heat down on one pan and turning up the other.
“He’s controlling, isn’t he?” he asked the dog, who looked up at him with her big brown eyes, tilting up her chin so that he’d take her head in his hands and scratch at her cheeks.
“Have you walked her this far before?” asked Valorous.
“No, I was waiting for the weather to cool down,” said Cecil. “I groomed her last week, cut her coat down, but even shorn down I’d not walk her that far in the summer, or even earlier in the autumn. I’ve gone on hikes around Lashton with her, but only for a few hours, not for a whole day. She’ll like it.”
Valorous nodded, and Cecil sat down at the kitchen table, watching him as he fried off the bacon and eggs, running a cloth over the side as he worked, because he liked to keep everything clean as he worked.
“How’d you find it, the other day?” he asked shortly after a few minutes, and Cecil scratched the top of Ruby’s head as she laid her head in his lap, her chin resting on his knee. “Other than setting Dot a reading list, I mean.”
“Fine,” said Cecil.
“What’d you talk about?”
Cecil watched Valorous for a second, watching the stiff straightness of his back, the way he held his shoulders. “Growing up,” he said simply.
“How your dad used to touch you?” asked Valorous, and Cecil opened his mouth, closed it.
“No,” he said. “We started earlier than that – talked about my brothers, my parents. There was thirteen years between me and my eldest brother, Victor, but there was seven of us in one house, you know.”
“Seven?” Valorous repeated seriously, his brow furrowed. He didn’t turn and look at Cecil, his focus staying on the pans.
“It doesn’t sound so much to you,” said Cecil. “I know you’ve no brothers or sisters, but your aunt and uncle have, what, ten kids?”
“Nine,” sad Valorous. “Their eldest is Curious.” He counted off on his fingers as he listed them: “Curious, he’s five years older than I am. Then Luminous, Prettiest, Durable, Grateful, she’s the same age as me, then Impeccable, Imprudent and Unfathomable, the twins, and Righteous, he’s the youngest.”
Cecil frowned when Valorous stopped. “What about Efficacious?”
“He’s not theirs,” said Valorous.
“They came for him at parents’ evening,” said Cecil. “Every year.”
“He’s Uncle Roguish’s son,” said Valorous. “He’s not what you’d call an active parent.”
“I fucking hate your family,” muttered Cecil. “Stopped teaching all these years and they can still give me a fucking headache.”
Valorous laughed, catching the toast out of the toaster and beginning to set the plates.
“Anyway,” said Cecil. “It’s not the same, you and then nine kids, staying with your aunt and uncle. They’ve got a fucking mansion, and all of you had your own bedrooms, didn’t you? For us, it was seven of us in a two-bed.”
Valorous stared at him, and Cecil could see him not understanding it, not comprehending.
“Seven?” he repeated. “In two bedrooms?”
“In one bedroom,” said Cecil. “Bedroom and the living room. My parents were in the other room – I was in there when I was a baby, still in the cot, and then I shared the bedroom with Rob, Donald, and Randall, and my elder brothers, Vic, Luther, and John, they slept downstairs. Vic moved out when he was sixteen, he was working at a factory, and Luther and John, and then Donald, later, they all joined the army. So by the time I was twelve, you know, everyone’d… Well. Randall and Victor, they both died when I was still a kid. Randall in ’72, and Vic in ’73.”
“How old were you?”
“About six. I was a young lad, anyway – Vic died on the factory floor, health and safety in the seventies wasn’t like it is now. Randall was thirteen, and he got mauled by a dog, and that was bad, but they stitched him up again, just that then, you know, one of them wounds reopened and got septic.” Cecil sipped at his coffee as Valorous put a plate in front of him, remembering how little Randall had looked in the cot, blankets all over him, his skin fucking yellow, his body soaked with sweat and his hair plastered to his head. It was probably one of his earliest memories, vivid as it fucking was, everyone crowding around him and pushing Cecil out of the way. “They said it was someone’s pet, which I believed at the time, but Luther told me later that it was someone’s fucking fighting dog. He helped out at a dog-fighting ring, and I think he might’ve done badger-baiting as well – he was quite a big lad, for his age, and he made better money doing that than anyone else did, at factories or the pittance you got enlisted, you know.”
“Is that why you like rescue dogs?” asked Valorous.
“Maybe,” said Cecil. “I never really connected it in my head, when I started working with dogs – I never actually saw any of the dogs my brother worked with, or knew anything about it, just that the wounds he had were nasty. I was never scared of dogs, growing up, never really thought about it.”
Valorous was picking at his food as he ate, and he looked almost mournfully to Ruby, who’d gone to sit down in her basket – she knew she wasn’t to sit nearby or even to really look at the table while people were eating, and that bothered Valorous, because he would rather be nice to the dog all the time than teach her good manners.
“How’d your dad rape you if you had all your brothers in the house?” he asked bluntly, and Cecil’s lips twitched.
“Well, Randall and Victor were dead. John and Luther had enlisted, and Donald couldn’t have yet, ‘cause he would only have been about fourteen or fifteen, something like that, but he was at a camp or something, army cadets. Me and Rob were home with my mother, she was drunk off her face, we were… I don’t know, listening to something on the radio, or maybe it was a vinyl recording of a show. He came home from the pub, told me to come upstairs. That wasn’t that unusual – when he was drunk, he often wanted someone to help him off with his shoes or his jacket. He just didn’t stop there, this time. Or any of the times after.”
“He didn’t fuck your brothers?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t know,” said Cecil. “’Cause I was the youngest, ‘cause he was grieving over two of his kids being dead, ‘cause my mother had started drinking a lot more, ‘cause he’d lost his job at the steelworks and couldn’t get another one. ‘Cause I was just the most fuckable seven-year-old out of the family. I don’t know, lad. Believe it or not, I never asked.”
Valorous didn’t apologise. Other lads would – other lads had, when they’d asked, although Cecil didn’t think he’d ever fucked a man as blunt and unashamed as Valorous could be when he asked the questions he did, when he said the things he did. Even as a kid, he’d been like that, and half the time, he hadn’t even realised just how shocking he was being, but nowadays, Cecil was fairly certain he did know, or had an inkling, anyway.
“Did you tell them?” asked Valorous.
“Who? My brothers?”
“No,” said Cecil.
“So they don’t know? They don’t know what your dad did to you?”
“They still hated him,” said Cecil. “He used to beat a lot of us around, used to hit my mother, used to drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney then complain he had no money, act as if it was our fault.”
“That’s not the same. That’s not as bad. And— Maybe he did hurt them too. And you just don’t know, and they don’t know that it happened to you too.”
“Maybe,” Cecil agreed. Valorous pressed his lips together and looked at him very intensely, his brows furrowed, his expression almost fierce. Before he could start to argue about it, Cecil said, “Eat your breakfast.”
Not without a bit of scorn, Valorous ate.
* * *
“I don’t think I’ve ever actually been hiking before,” said Valorous as they came out of Lashton woods and started cresting the hill, and Cecil laughed disbelievingly. He’d let Ruby off the leash as soon as they’d come off the path – these ones weren’t very commonly travelled by dog-walkers because they went in and out of fae lands, and he could see that Cecil was keeping a close eye on her, but she didn’t go far off the path anyway.
He'd started watching people with their dogs, watching what dogs did, and he’d been reading a bit about dog behaviour recently, picking books off of Cecil’s shelves and reading them.
A lot of dogs, once you let them off the lead, would run off and get distracted by scents and smells, but Ruby didn’t. She didn’t lose herself in scents and smells and rush off in search of them, because she couldn’t lose herself, couldn’t forget herself. The only thing she remembered was Cecil, and even as she wandered a bit off the path to look at something or sniff it or even paw a bit at it, she’d always keep Cecil in her periphery, always keep him in her line of sight.
“How is it that you’ve never been hiking?” asked Cecil. “You’ve only walked from here to fucking Bethlehem. You’ve only been on half a million fucking quests, been to every other country on the planet, fought in a few hundred skirmishes… and you’ve never hiked?”
“I’ve hiked,” said Valorous. “To and from places. I’ve climbed mountains or gone into caves or tracked from here to there, but I’ve never gone on a hike. Just walked for the sake of walking. Did you ever do this at school? With scouts and stuff?”
“Nah,” said Cecil, making a face. “I never did any of that, didn’t volunteer for shit. I had enough hours with the hours I was paid for, I wasn’t about to go and do extra.”
“You taught us extra,” said Valorous. “Training after school.”
Cecil laughed. “That was different,” he said. “I didn’t have to travel anywhere, and I still got paid.”
“Why’d you become a teacher?” asked Valorous.
“Free supply of kids,” said Cecil.
“Kids you never fucked,” Valorous argued. “You never even looked at us in the changing rooms unless I got you to come in.”
“Oh, well, I’m sorry,” said Cecil, going gay with the sarcasm and gesturing broadly with limp wrists, and Valorous sniggered, but fell into step beside him, his hands in his pockets. He leaned in a bit closer, rubbing elbows with Cecil and leaning into him. “I should have gone in to peer at all the teenage cocks as often as I could, and fucked a few of you for good measure. That what you want to hear?”
“I’d happily hear it in bed,” said Valorous, and Cecil slung his arm around his shoulders, curling his fingers in the back of Valorous’ hair and gently scratching his scalp. “You can’t run the nonce act on me. Why’d you actually do it?”
Cecil pressed his lips together, gently tugged on Valorous’ hair as they walked together. The grass was yellow, not a dead or dying yellow, but the bright, golden yellow of faerie grass.
Myrddin had some of it growing in his garden.
“I liked what I did as a drill sergeant,” said Cecil simply. “I liked training people up, carving the excess off them and making them cool and clean-cut and perfect. I liked the moment when I had a new company of lads and they were all shitty, unpolished little fucks, and then a month later I looked at them and they were moving like a fucking machine, and I did that. I liked when boys were in fucking tears, the first week, told me they couldn’t fucking do it, and I said they could do it and they would do it and I’d watch them do it. And then they’d stop fucking crying, and they would.”
It made something click inside him, made it click or tick or otherwise twist around, and it didn’t feel bad exactly, but didn’t feel good either. It was just a sort of weird relief and abrupt relaxation of pain, like when something dislocated was put back into place.
“Why’d you become a cop?” asked Cecil.
“What do you mean?” asked Valorous, feeling himself frown as he glanced at him, not quite understanding the question. It wasn’t like he’d really become a cop, It wasn’t a career, not like being a teacher was, wasn’t a vocation or a calling.
“You came here,” said Cecil, “to Lashton. Became a cop – a detective. How’d that happen? What was that process? ‘Cause it’s not like you came here and fucking applied, right?”
“No,” said Valorous, laughing at the fucking idea, and he shook his head. “Um… It was one of the court advisors who suggested it, because he was looking at me less and less, taking less of an interest when I was home, and I was doing a lot more intelligence work than I was before, and I didn’t like it. I hated it, actually. And he knew I did, and… And anyway, so when the idea was floated about me going home to Lashton, Salt suggested this, and he put me in with the station in Camelot. They kept me in the station at first, I did a lot of interrogations and compiling information. I’m good at pattern recognition, and I’m good at breaking people down, and I got good results, so they put me on some courses, made me shadow some guys. So then I came here.”
Cecil didn’t say anything right away. They walked together, Cecil’s arm still slung around his shoulder until it felt too heavy and Valorous twisted free, stumbling as he went to follow after Ruby. She looked up at him askance, and he didn’t say anything to her, just leaned over and put his hand into the thick ruff of her back, scratching at her and letting her lean into his side before he let her go.
She glanced back at him twice, like she wasn’t sure if it was okay, shyly wagging her tail, but then she went off again, sniffing at blue flowers, put her nose right into them.
“I say something wrong?” asked Valorous, because he couldn’t read Cecil’s face.
“No,” said Cecil. “I didn’t realise that you’d been put into it that… fully. I thought you’d have more choice in the matter.”
“I had a choice,” said Valorous immediately, feeling his lips curl, and Cecil smiled.
“Okay. But you didn’t… orchestrate it. Plan it. You didn’t go in wanting to be a cop or a detective – you were installed into it.”
“You’re saying it’s nepotism?” asked Valorous, even though he knew that wasn’t what Cecil was saying, even though he sort of knew precisely what he meant all of a sudden, although he didn’t exactly like the idea, didn’t like the way it felt, the way it fitted on him.
At least becoming a knight or a champion or even a spy, it felt like you could call it destiny and not be taking the piss. Being a cop wasn’t the same thing at all.
“Do you like being a cop?” asked Cecil.
“I don’t know,” said Valorous.
Cecil nodded his head, but he didn’t seem surprised, and he didn’t seem annoyed, and Valorous didn’t know what he seemed like, exactly.
“Did you like being a teacher?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Cecil. “I loved it, I suppose. Teaching was what I was – what I was in the army, what I was at school. It’s not exactly fucking illustrious, lad, but it’s what I am now at the gym.”
“Oh,” said Valorous.
“We’ll work out what you like,” said Cecil. “What you want to be, instead of just… what you have been.”
“You want me to be like you,” said Valorous experimentally, and Cecil laughed, putting his hands on his hips and stopping for a second. He looked serious in his trousers and his hoodie and his hiking boots, his pack on his back, not slung to one side like Valorous was wearing his, but with the straps all properly done up so he could have real back support.
“No,” said Cecil. “No, I fucking do not. Categorically, I do not ever want you to be like me, my lad. But… I am a man without a destiny, that’s true. And I think you could stand to have a little less destiny yourself. Learn to go without.”
Valorous nodded his head.
“What, no arguments? That doesn’t piss you off?”
“No,” said Valorous. He was a little surprised himself.
“Good lad,” said Cecil, and Valorous smiled without meaning to, because he felt warm and comfortable and surprisingly safe in a way he was trying desperately not to question, not to think about, because if he questioned it or thought about it the feeling would pop and then dissipate, and he didn’t want it to dissipate, he wanted to keep it.
He followed Ruby off the path, and then walked off the path some more so that Ruby could feel like she could do that, and she did, a little bit. She still kept Cecil in her line of sight, always making sure she could see him there on the path – but then, so did Valorous.
He didn’t lose sight of him for a moment.