Pro Domino Mori: Two
It was not until Bell stumbled onto Gustav’s front porch that the door swung open before them; Bell had been expecting it since he first stepped foot onto Gustav’s long gravel drive, shuffling slowly along the straightaway towards the impressive, sprawling country estate, shadowed between the encircling forearms of the gully.
No alarm was raised, however, no alert of an intruder bearing a man’s limp body, no acknowledgement of any kind until Bell was on the threshold and the door was wrenched open.
An older man, wrinkled as dried meat and looking just as tough, stood wide-eyed in the door. He was impeccably dressed, black jacket and waistcoat, the image of a proper domestic servant despite the demeanor of having just awakened. His pale grey hair was cropped short, weather-softened features molded into a horrified glare at the image of Bell on the front stoop.
“What have you done?” the old man demanded in a strangled whisper.
There was the sound of bare feet behind him, and a boy barely into his teens skittered into view. He looked sleep-tousled, skinny chest bare and brown hair mussed.
“Alstair, is the master back — ?!” The boy tripped to a halt, eyes wide. He promptly launched himself at Bell, small fists flying. “Put Master down!” he yelled, pounding on Bell’s side. The larger man thought it almost comical, how ineffectual the attack was. He turned his body to shield Gustav and shifted his weight to one arm. With the other arm, he casually struck the boy in the side of the head, hard enough to send him, stunned, to the floor — but not hard enough to damage much, Bell decided.
“No,” Gustav gritted, shallow breath warm against Bell’s neck. No one had noticed him regain consciousness. “Bell, stop.”
Bell stopped. He did not follow the boy, nor turn to face Alstair.
Gustav twisted his head weakly to glare at Alstair, his gaze fiery and dark and betraying nothing of his body’s condition. “He stays with me. Tomas, find Lainey; tell her to retrieve her medical supplies.”
Alstair helped the boy to his feet, eyeing Bell while instructing Tomas in a low voice. Bell stared impassively back. He was distracted by a wandering thought: Gustav had allowed himself to be vulnerable and express his pain when he and Bell had been alone, but the moment that he was in the eyes of these others, he tried his best to sit up on own his power, to deny all traces of weakness. Bell doubted that either Alstair or Tomas was fooled, but the change in bearing was still jarring and pointed.
Alstair cautiously approached Bell. “Come, bring him up to his room.” The statement did not come out as an order, and was infused with a certain suspicious deference; it reminded Bell of the way other prisoners spoke to him in the gaol, and the slave ship before it, and the barracks a veritable lifetime ago. He relished the familiar feeling of power, even as Gustav sapped it away.
Alstair turned and retreated up the stairs. Bell felt Gustav sag slightly against him and let out a brief hiss of pain as Bell began to ascend the staircase.
The house was grand, far grander than Bell had ever seen, outside of half-remembered fireside tales, told when he was too young to throw rocks or sharpen knives. The house was panelled and floored in dark, rich wood; the wide walls were covered in tapestries and delicate tables housed ornaments of a wealthy, if understated, bent. Bell understood acutely that he could break it all to pieces, if he wanted to.
He followed Alstair into one of the many rooms off the second floor landing, snaking a cursory glance around the area. It was as dark and somber as the rest of the household, the finery disjointed and unlived-in. The room could easily have been a guestroom, but the indifference and impersonality was so thick as to be almost deliberate. It reminded Bell of a barrack after a battle: sterile and missing inhabitants.
Some men went crazy, after long nights spent in ghost-beds like that.
Bell set Gustav down as gently as he could on stripped-down, cream-colored sheets. Then he stood back and realized he had no idea what to do next.
Alstair fixed Bell with a long gaze. Bell ignored him, standing still and stiff-backed next to Gustav’s bed and wondering if he should stay, if he would be dismissed, if he should just walk away.
Gustav was conscious, but his eyes were closed, and he was breathing irregularly. A young woman in a conservative black dress, her hair only half-pinned back, padded into the room with a basket on her arm. She locked widening eyes on Bell, who catalogued the contents of the basket — herbs and bottles, white bandages, and a few longer sticks of wood.
Alstair coughed politely, addressing Bell. “You may leave now. I can find you something to eat –”
“He stays,” Gustav bit out. Bell shrugged at Alstair. He would have much preferred food, perhaps a chance to sit down — everything hurt, and he was exhausted. But he would not leave Gustav, even if he had not been asked to stay. Even if he had been ordered to leave, Bell was starting to realize. He did not wonder why.
Alstair looked suspicious again, but Bell was growing used to the sentiment, and often deserved it.
Lainey, old enough to be bearing children, surely, but serious as an old spinster in the moment, bent over Gustav on the bed, frowning over smaller cuts and scrapes. Then her eyes rested on his shin, awkwardly angled in one blood-stained trouser leg. She removed his boots and grabbed a pair of scissors, cutting the fabric away completely and hissing in sympathy as the wound came into view.
Bell watched. The bone was indeed broken and the flesh around Gustav’s injury bloomed red and purple as ends of the fracture pushed up against the skin, threatening to break through. Lainey looked pale, gaze flicking to Alstair for help. Alstair frowned grimly back, focused on the wound. He rolled up his shirt sleeves, elbowing Lainey out of the way.
“This needs to be set,” he said. “Tomas had the same sort of injury this summer when the horse threw him. It will be a simple set, but…” his eyes flicked to Gustav’s, “… I’m afraid that it will hurt.”
Gustav did not meet his gaze, his eyes glazed over. “Of course it will,” he murmured.
“What happened?” Lainey interrupted in breathless demand.
“Not your concern,” snapped Gustav. “Alstair, please get this over with.” Alstair nodded, looking less curious than Lainey, almost as if he were used to mysterious injuries.
“Katan,” Alstair said deferentially, nodding at Bell and using what was presumably an unfamiliar honorific. “Please hold him down.”
Gustav all but squawked. “I don’t need to be held down! I can handle a bit of –”
Bell ignored him, forcing Gustav to sit up and settling behind him so that Gustav’s back pressed into his chest. He looped thick forearms under Gustav’s own, clasping hands across his front. Gustav stiffened, immediately starting to struggle, but as he shifted his leg, he tensed in pain, and Bell tightened his grip. Gustav stopped struggling.
Alstair took out a few bandages and rolled them into a thick cylinder.
“Master D’Adelle, please bite down on this.”
Gustav clenched his jaw, perhaps intending to be stubborn, but Bell took the bandages from Alstair and ghosted his fingers along Gustav’s smooth chin. He would have pried his mouth open as well, but Gustav realized the intent and opened his lips himself. Bell put the bandage roll in his mouth.
While Gustav was distracted, Alstair took a deep breath, gripped Gustav’s right shin both above and below the break, and pushed.
There was a ferocious scraping of bone on bone, the sound of something raking against eardrums. Gustav let out a deep moan of agony, his body seizing up and trembling against Bell’s chest. Bell held him tightly, allowing the young man’s nails to sink in as they scrabbled against his shoulder.
Gustav did not make another sound, however, and quickly enough it was over. Alstair let go of the leg, and Gustav collapsed, panting, against the man behind him.
Lainey, who had been watching in horror for the entirety of the ordeal, moved to splint the injury, her mouth drawn into a wavering line. She had a thick white paste, which she smeared over the bruised surface of the skin before rolling firm bandages across the splints.
Bell felt every shiver of the man in his arms, quietly marveling at the heady sense of power. At this moment, he felt Gustav entirely in his thrall. Gustav was his, belonged to him.
Bell was his bodyguard, and it was his job to protect Gustav — and protect him, he would. From now on, no one else would see him in pain like this.
Gustav breathed heavily, the bandage roll falling from his lips, face pale and glossy with sweat, but he nevertheless opened his eyes to glare almost lucidly at nothing in particular.
Alstair bobbed his head. “I have tea downstairs that will numb some of the pain, though the effects take time. I’ll get Samuel to prepare some.” With that, he was gone.
Lainey set to work with a rag, a few nondescript pastes, and water from a decanter by the bed, tending to Gustav’s smaller scrapes and injuries. Bell blinked heavily, extricating himself from Gustav. He didn’t wish to stand anymore, instead perching himself at the edge of the bed and just watching.
Lainey seemed hyper-aware of the eyes on her, and kept sliding glances to Bell when she thought she would not be seen.
“Ah, Katan…” she murmured demurely after a long moment. “Are you –”
“Bell,” Bell forced out by way of introduction, hating the foreign honorific of “katan”. He needed water, something to wash his mouth with, to remove the taste of stale blood and gunpowder.
“Let me tend to you as well,” Lainey said. “You’re covered in bruises.”
Bell shrugged, looking down at himself for the first time all night. He winced, recognizing the extent of the injuries that he had suffered. Some were from the explosion, but the mottled violet bruises across his chest and stomach were the result of violence far removed from whatever his life was now. Bell felt suddenly overwhelmed by uncertainty. He didn’t know why he was here, but he was, and the gaol and the prisoner ship and the barracks and everything could now be as lost to him as the old farm house in a country he barely remembered.
Turning to Lainey, he shook his head. It would all heal on its own. She looked disappointed almost, but excused herself as Alstair returned with a large tray. On it was perched a pot of foul-smelling tea, as well as a large mug of something else, and generous portions of bread and cheese.
Gustav sat up and accepted the tea gratefully, already looking dignified once more, despite his torn clothing and unkempt hair. It was his bearing, Bell decided; it was his mask. He hated it illogically but completely. No one should have that much self-control.
Alstair put the tray on the table beside Bell, not saying anything more than “Good evening, Katan, Master,” before retreating from the room.
Bell grabbed the mug, drinking deeply. He grunted in pleased surprise — it was beer, strong stuff. Bell hadn’t had beer in months at least. He had lost track of time long ago. He finished it quickly, starting in on the food as Gustav struggled to stand. The man balanced on one leg, shivered, then fell heavily back onto the mattress. Bell watched him struggle, until Gustav turned and fixed him with a dark, irritated stare.
“Help me change into my nightclothes,” Gustav ordered. Bell didn’t move.
“Is that part of my duties too?” he asked.
He had his back to Gustav, and Gustav had his back to him, but Gustav’s response held a tone of absolute dominance that brooked no argument in the least. “I have told you before,” he said, voice stronger than iron or bone. “You belong to me. You will do what I tell you to do.”
Bell clenched his jaw.
With little more resistance, he crossed the room to stand in front of Gustav and held out both hands. He had no idea what kind of expression he displayed.
Gustav fixed his eyes on a point somewhere in the middle of Bell’s chest, certainly not on his face, and grabbed Bell’s hands tightly. His long, slender fingers slid easily between Bell’s own; he was hopelessly fragile. Bell felt a single, helpless thrill pass up his spine as he let Gustav lean his weight against him.
“My nightclothes are laid out on the chair,” Gustav said, pointing to a desk and high-backed chair in the far corner of the room. Bell gauged the distance and turned back to Gustav when he realized he could not hold the man upright while retrieving his clothes. He forcibly leaned Gustav against the nearest wall. Gustav wobbled, falling against it, and Bell kept a hand around his waist to steady him. Then he withdrew, crossed the room, and grabbed a fistful of elegant linen. He enjoyed the faintly scandalized look that Gustav gave him, almost as much as the realization that the man could do absolutely nothing to stop Bell from whatever he wished to do.
That power, however, came to matter very little, because Bell found himself returning, putting the linen on the bed, and holding Gustav steady as he undressed himself. He stared impassively as the ruined trousers came off, easily keeping Gustav upright as he tried to untangle cloth from his splint. Left standing in his tight white under-trousers, he still managed to keep a certain air of self-possession about him, which irked Bell to no end. As Gustav worked at the buttons of his vest and shirt, Bell contemplated letting him fall over, just to elicit a reaction. He felt that, somehow, the act of a man stripping willingly in front of him ought to thrill him, ought to fill him with desire, perhaps, or satisfaction.
But no, Gustav’s incredible poise made Bell feel very much like a tool, to be used when needed and ignored when not. Gustav stood bare-chested in front of him, allowing him full view of smooth, pale flesh unblemished by work, weather, or wounds. And then he began to put on the crumpled linens and Bell found himself becoming very, very angry.
Without pausing to think, Bell let go of Gustav’s waist, instead locking a heavy forearm across the young man’s throat and using it to pull him backwards, so off-balance that all he could do was lean against Bell and gasp for air until he suffocated –
Suddenly, Bell found himself with his arms full of nothing at all, one wrist twisted behind his back, and a wickedly sharp knife pricking the soft skin of his neck. Gustav was behind him, wielding the weapon, wincing and breathing heavily but grinning with absolute, arrogant triumph. Bell didn’t know where he had retrieved the knife; somewhere on his person, surely.
“This is the last time that I will tell you,” Gustav hissed. “You. Belong. To me.”
Bell felt warm blood trickle down his neck, and for the first time, he truly believed in Gustav’s words.
He also found himself to be completely unafraid. It was as if the thrill he had missed when Gustav undressed had just hit him at full force. Having a master again was overwhelming and glorious.
Bell was already in impossibly deep, and he had yet to figure out in what.
Gustav withdrew the knife, straightening and wiping blood — Bell’s blood — on his clean, white night clothes. It stained, brilliant for a long moment before it sank into a brown color on the fibres. Bell watched it seep in, seeing himself sully Gustav’s purity.
“You will sleep in my bed, and you will not leave my side tonight,” Gustav told him casually. He deliberately placed the knife on a stool beside the bed, as if to announce he would no longer need it. Bell knew that he wouldn’t.
“Blow out the candles,” Gustav told him, pulling back the coverlet and sheets and slipping into them. Bell did as he was told, until only the candle near Gustav was lit. He wiped his neck on the bleached napkin that had been delivered with the tray of food, leaving yet more blood. Gustav extinguished the last candle himself.
In the dark, Bell kicked off his boots, pausing for a long moment to survey the body beneath the sheets. It was not long at all before Bell heard Gustav’s breath even out, felt the shift as his body relaxed into the mattress. He had not removed his hair from the half-undone horsetail. Bell didn’t think that he had forgotten. Someone like Gustav, he was beginning to believe, forgot nothing.
Bell shifted himself to lie at the foot of the bed, curled like a dog atop the blankets. He watched the rise and fall of the sheets as Gustav simply breathed, careless.
Bell, however, was far from relaxed. His body tensed to a painful, aching degree — call it a holdover from soldier days. Call it a holdover from watching his back, his ass, his neck on a ship where he was the greatest threat to the other prisoners’ survival. Habits like that could not be erased in a day. Call it anything but Bell being a proper bodyguard, staying alert for the sake of the man next to him.
Bell had always taken things in stride — obeyed orders without question, adjusted, adapted. It was why he was still alive.
He had been a good soldier and had quickly risen from cannon fodder to minor officer for the simple reason that he did what was asked of him: “Kill as many as you can before they kill you.” Bell had not been killed.
Half a battle field of red miasma after the first shots had been fired — the first shots of the first battle of an interminable and earth-changing war — a heavy hand had fallen on Bell’s shoulder. He’d whirled, brandished his bayonet, almost struck out wildly — and his commanding officer stood in front of him grinning fiendishly.
“The field is clear, boy,” the soldier had told him.
Not clear, covered in bodies.
Bell had nodded impassively back, utterly satisfied. The blood on his hands was almost the same as the cat blood and the sparrow blood that had convinced a terrified mother and elder sister that, at fourteen, he could not be kept at home.
Eight long years stretched and scratched and stabbed and gutted an entire landscape, and the fighting had not ended — that was when Bell’s contingent found something they simply could not overcome: gas.
Every breath burned, tears running unchecked despite attempts to hold them back. Bell was ready to go down fighting. Instead, the world had gone black. He had woken in a dark, swaying room with his hands bound in metal shackles.
A prisoner of war, he’d been told — but there was no intention of returning him, even if somehow someone had offered to pay ransom. Pressed into a stinking, sweltering hold with dying men and their festering wounds, Bell knew he would not be sent back home.
He had never wanted to go back, anyway. When the captives had been told, an undefined time later, that their strip of homeland had been defeated and invaded, Bell had not been moved beyond the brief tinge of regret that he could no longer fight.
Rather, he could no longer fight for an army. Instead, days passed in a boiling incoherency of violence and competition, for food, safety, and the relief of basic needs; to tell the sailor-guards that one would not submit and to tell the other captives that they must.
The competition was occasionally deadly, and when two of the harder prisoners doubled up on Bell, he had thought that he would not wake up from this battle. But he did wake, to small, cold fingers beneath his chin and the promise of moving from one captivity and into another.
So now, here he was, on a real mattress and as he had not been in years: warm, fed, and more confused than he had ever been in his life.
Gustav knew nothing about him, barely his name, and still the conceit shone through that Bell could be trusted. What frustrated Bell the most was that Gustav had been right. Bell would not harm him. He was unable.
He had always had a hard time resisting orders; he knew that about himself. He was full of a violent energy, and he didn’t know what to do with it, not if he wasn’t told. Still, Gustav was going against his very nature. Even in the army, he had always been able to act on his passions: for food, a fuck, a fight. It was what had kept the urges to release that energy to kill at bay, when no battles presented themselves. But within a handful of hours, every urge to injure and harm others had been stifled, except for when Gustav ordered him to act, as he had on the roadside towards the inept assassins.
Bell did not know why he would not disobey Gustav, whose missives were so distasteful and suffocating — but he would not. He would share this bed with this embodiment of arrogance and would sleep fitfully if only to protect him.
Quietly, Gustav began to snore.