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"Anyone up for another spar?" Alan asked, hefting a blunt practice sword in his hand.
There was a collective groan from the squires and knights sprawled around the practice grounds. "Great Mithros," Gary whimpered, mopping his brow exaggeratedly. "Another? Have mercy on my poor arms, Alan."
The others made similar disclaimers, for most had spent the whole afternoon sparring and they were now exhausted. Only Alan, who had arrived late and missed out on the fun, still looked relatively fresh. He was practically bouncing on the spot and his violet eyes were bright with energy.
"Geoffrey?" Alan pleaded, looking to Alex's squire. "Come on, Geoff, just one bout..."
The squire held his hands up in mock defense. "No, gods, no! Keep that boy away from me!"
A voice cut across the burst of laughter that followed Geoffrey's jest. The speaker was quiet, uttering the words barely above conversational levels. Yet it rang clearly, breaking through the hubbub like a shadow on bright snow.
"Alan, I'll go another round," Alex said.
Heads turned in surprise. Alex was standing as though he had just entered the courtyard; but with his catsilent tread, one could only guess at how long he had been watching. Expressionless and enigmatic, he walked through the suddenly quieter atmosphere of the practice grounds to stand before Alan himself.
Facing each other in the centre of the courtyard, the knight and the squire sized each other up with careful glances. To the onlookers, they made a strange pair: one fiery-haired and full of anger, and the other darkly intense and moodily silent.
But despite their differences there was one thing these two had in common that made even the weariest squire sit up in attention. For everyone well knew that of all the brash young knights and eager squires, Alex and Alan were among the two best fencers the palace had seen since Duke Gareth himself. A spar between these two would be a sight that none would care to miss.
Oblivious to the ripple of excitement that was spreading around the courtyard and the whispered bets being taken, Alan nodded, a small smile dancing on his lips. "Alright, Alex. You're on."
Alex merely nodded, his dark eyes glittering eagerly.
* * *
The courtyard's rapt silence was broken only by the sounds of the two swordsmen as they moved about the sparring area, trading blows with lightning-fast speed. The crowd of awed watchers were hard-pressed to follow the flurry of blows and counter-blows, attacks and feints, blocks and strikes.
For Alex and Alan, however, the circle of onlookers had long ago faded away. There was only the air between them, whirring with the silver of flashing blades. There was only the dust beneath them, swirling in eddies to the rhythm of their feet. There was only the sound of the blood that thudded in their ears, louder then the tolling of the bells at sunset.
The duel was a dance, their steps light and graceful, their bodies moving to a beat most precarious and teetering, the beat upon which victory and defeat depended. For to lose that rhythm, to misplace one footstep or swordstroke, and the dance would be over.
Now the two dancers turned, mirror-image smooth, with their swords raised as one -
-and their blades kissed each other's throats. A draw.
* * *
"All that for a draw!" someone grumbled as they walked past the changing rooms. "I put down good money on Alex, too."
"The more fool you," his companion scoffed. "By the time Alan becomes a knight, he'll be thrashing Alex with one hand tied behind his back."
"Ha! By the time Alan becomes a knight, he'll still be kneehigh to a grasshopper..."
Still joking, the voices moved on. Alan and Alex, the only two left in the change rooms, exchanged wry glances. Alan shook his head ruefully, wiping off with a towel but not yet changing his sweat-soaked clothes. "Kneehigh to a grasshopper indeed..." he muttered sourly, but with a small grin on his lips.
Alex grinned too as he stripped off his shirt, but all he said was, "Good spar, Alan."
"Yeah," Alan replied, his smile growing wider and more reckless. "It was, wasn't it? Ow," he added, dropping his towel and clutching at his upper arm. "And I'll be paying for it later, I'm sure," he said, wincing.
"Cramp?" Alex said, his voice tinged with concern.
"Muscle seized up on me," Alan said, gingerly trying to unbend his arm but stopping with a yelp. "Lucky it didn't happen during the bout, eh?" he joked, but he grimaced in genuine pain. "Dammit."
"Here, let me help," Alex offered. He rolled up the rest of Alan's sleeve and began to massage the young squire's upper arm.
"Ah, thanks," Alan said as the muscle began to uncramp, "that feels so much better." He smiled up at Alex gratefully.
"My pleasure," Alex replied flippantly, smiling back.
They were standing very close now, staring into each other's eyes, Alex's hands still around Alan's arm. Neither of them seemed able to move and they both were suddenly acutely aware that Alex was naked to the waist.
Don't be ridiculous, this is nothing, Alex said to himself sternly - but the thudding of his heart in his chest told him something different, told him that he was nervous now as he never was when duelling.
"Alan," he forced himself to say, still not letting go of his arm.
Alan nodded automatically. His eyes were deep enough to drown a legion and a blush was rising in his cheeks. "Alex," he murmured, his mouth barely moving.
"Alan," Alex repeated mechanically, staring into those eyes and feeling himself beginning to fall...
The kiss began softly, nervously. And became something deeper, harder. For a moment Alex truly lost himself. Hot breath and warm tongue, soft lips and hard teeth, taste of Alan and Alan and Alan.
But then a hand was against his chest, pushing him away with one forceful movement. Alex stumbled back a step, nearly falling, and looked up with vulnerable eyes at the other boy. They were both breathing hard now and Alan was bright red from forehead to chin; he looked terrified.
"Alan," Alex whispered, wishing that he could wipe away that note of pleading in his voice. "Just wait a..."
"No!" Alan said, almost shouting. In a quiet voice, avoiding Alex's eyes, he mumbled, "I - I've got to go. Have to go, right now." He stumbled in his haste to gather up his possessions, and within moments he was gone.
Alex slumped to the floor and clenched his jaw, breathing very hard. When he closed his eyes all he could see were those deep violet eyes. The only thing he could seem to think about was the softness of the mouth that had burned against his own, so hard and so briefly.
With a muted cry, he slammed his fist into the wall. He barely noticed the pain.
* * *
Afterwards, Alan acted as though it had never happened. Not one blush, not one look, nothing. Their friendship was chillier then before, perhaps, but even so - it was though he had never kissed Alex like he meant it.
But Alex did not forget. He remembered, and watched, and he kept on wanting.
"Thorn in your side?" Roger mocked lightly on one night when Alex seemed more distant then usual. "What's troubling you, Alex?"
"Nothing," Alex replied. He smiled to make the word less terse and wiped away thoughts of violet eyes...
Roger yawned dismissively. "Then come to bed."
But even then he could not stop remembering. Not in Roger's bed, nor in Geoffrey's. Sometimes it was better with Geoffrey, who was young and shy and loved him - better, because if Alex closed his eyes he could pretend it was someone else saying his name.
Attempting to dull the ache, he tried to reason with himself. After all, Alan was just a boy, a callow and ordinary boy, and there were many others who would be more then eager to take what Alex had to offer. Or perhaps Alan simply didn't like men in that way. No matter that for a moment, Alex was sure, that it felt as though he had been returning the kiss. Yes, more and more plausible...
But when Alex saw the way that Alan looked at Jon, he knew that it wasn't true. The prince and his squire - they were so obvious it almost made Alex want to scream. Almost. Instead he honed the edge of his sword and wondered Roger when would finally follow up on his boasts and put Jon into his richly deserved grave.
Not that that would change a thing. No, Alan would rather die then forget his prince.
And perhaps, Alex sometimes thought darkly when he was deep in his cups, it would be better if he did...
Such thoughts that coursed behind that smooth expressionless face, behind those dark unfathomable eyes. Dark Alex, silent Alex, waiting in the shadows with his heart turning sour and his mouth becoming cruel.
* * *
"Let's spar again, Alan," he suggested one dull winter afternoon. "Just you and me. No draws this time," he added, "we'll find out who's better once and for all."
With a considering look in his eyes, Alan agreed. "Alright. Why not?"
Alex himself was not aware of what he intended until they stepped onto the practice court and swung their swords into the guard position. But the moment that their swords met, he was sure.
"Guard," Alex whispered, staring deep into those violet eyes, before bearing down on Alan like a thunderstorm. Their previous spar had been a dance, but this time Alex was tired of beauty. The rhythm now thrumming in him was murder, deep and bloody and deafeningly loud.
("I want to stop! Something's wrong.")
Dimly, he was aware that Alan was saying something, or at least that his mouth was moving - but Alex could not hear a word beyond the sound of his own heartbeat. Is this what it feels like to love?, he whispered to himself as the sword struck bone and Alan made a cry like a wounded bird. Is this how it feels to want someone so much that you'd rather they were dead then someone else's?
He raised the sword again and-
"Very interesting, Alex." It was Myles.
Startled, Alex dropped the blade, and so the killing blow was never struck. But he never forgot how it felt to hold Alan's life in his hands; to finally be the one making the hurt instead of the one feeling it.
It was a good feeling.
* * *
Though it may be hidden deep and transmuted into murder, it is hard to truly rid oneself of love or the memory of it. Even Alex, who disciplined his mind and body so sternly, could not completely uproot the emotion on his own.
The only thing that could, and did, was the truth.
It was the day of the second feast of the Midwinter Festival when the newly knighted Sir Alan of Trebond came before the king and the queen, holding Roger's undoing in his hands - not knowing that his own lay also within the folds of the cloth bundle.
"Majesty," Alan said clearly, so that the whole hall fell silent, "I have done a dishonourable thing."
As Alan went on, and the accusations and counter-accusations flew across the hall, Alex gripped his goblet in a white-knuckled hand. Looking around the hall, he could see others of Roger's faction looking whey-faced and afraid. One of them, he noted, was pulling at his collar, as though imagining how it would feel with a noose around his neck. Fools, Alex sneered at them, though inside his heart was beating fast.
Though driven to the wall, and with none of his supporters even daring to meet his gaze, Roger pushed onwards with a show of bravado that Alex had to admire. "I demand my rights," Roger insisted, pointing towards Alan with a shaking finger. "I demand trial by combat, myself, against the accuser."
"You may have the combat," King Roald said heavily.
It was to be the beginning of the end. How easily the lies now fell apart! First Roger's sword, slicing through cloth and illusion; then Thom of Trebond calmly saying, "You'll have to excuse my sister, Majesties," - and last of all, her name: Alanna.
Roger's death was almost an anti-climax.
Standing in the shadows of the great hall, Alex bit his lip and tasted blood. He barely noticed, so intent he was on that slim red-haired figure, standing weary and alone, violet eyes cast downwards upon the body of the Duke. As slender as a blade, as bright as a flame.
He had loved Alan...
But no! For the person he loved had never existed and Alex's emotions had been a lie. All along it had been Alanna, and what he had once felt for 'Alan' was inverted and made loathsome. He remembered the stolen kiss, the sleepless nights, and behind his dark cat's eyes there was the burning of humiliation.
How dare she? Alex seethed. Nothing would cool this fury. Nothing could slake this hate. He dug his nails into his palm hard enough to cut, trying to keep from screaming.
The next time they duelled, she would pay for making him love her.
For making him love a lie.
Disclaimer: the Song of the Lioness series and its characters are entirely and utterly the property of Tamora Pierce. I own nothing and after playing with the characters - for which I earn no money, mind - I always put them away neatly.