Oh, The Places You'll Go

Under Summer Skies

Notes: With thanks to the wonderful brynnmck for her excellent beta skills and assuring me I wasn't crazy. This is an AU, just in case the summary didn't give it away. Written for the ds_flashfiction challenge 'Gentlemen of the Road', this fic was inspired by the chapter title "On the belated repayment of the gift of a pear".


The golden wheat stalks brushed against Ray's bare thighs as he ran through the field, kite flying high above him, a red dot in an azure sky. As he lifted his head to squint into the sun his foot caught in a hole and he tumbled, noiseless, to the ground, crushing the stalks underneath him as he fell — a prickly bed to lie upon. In his shock, Ray's grip loosened on the kite and the steady breeze pulled it beyond his reach in mere seconds. He cried out, not for the pain in his ankle, but for the loss of his toy.

Olive skin smeared with dirt, Ray tried to stand, to chase the kite down but a sharp pain shot up his leg and he collapsed again, crying tears of frustration. Papa would beat him for losing the kite, he knew. And how was he supposed to get home, anyway? From his position on the ground, the wheat surrounded Ray; the stalks that had bent under him as he ran had sprung up again, enclosing him in a golden prison.

Ray was five. He was tired. He hurt. It was too much. He began to sob.

So busy was he crying that he did not hear the rustle of the wheat that signaled he was no longer alone. The first Ray knew of the other's presence was a shadow that fell over him as he stared at his ankle, willing the swelling to disappear.

"Hey," said a high voice. "This yours?"

Ray jerked his head up to see a boy about his age, tunic dark with dirt, limbs sturdy and strong, hair the color of wheat flopping into eyes that reminded Ray of the sky reflected in the river that ran alongside his village. The boy held out a grubby fist wrapped around a piece of string that strained up into the sky. Ray followed the line of it to a familiar, red diamond.

"My kite!" A smile split his face and was answered by the boy. Ray scrambled to his feet, forgetting his ankle, and yelled in pain even as his hand closed around the string of his kite.

The boy screwed up his face in question and slung an arm around Ray. "You hurt?"

"Mmmm," said Ray, lips squeezed tight together. He did not want to cry more in front of the boy: it seemed important that he knew Ray could be brave.

"Can I help? You can lean on me, I'm strong," said the boy moving closer so that their bare legs pressed together.

"I want to go home," said Ray, breath hitching, pointing in the direction of his village.

"I can do that," said the boy after a brief pause. "Come on."

Slowly, slowly, step by awkward step they made their way back through the wheat-field, the boy humming a little under his breath, Ray concentrating hard on suppressing the tears that threatened to fall. After what seemed an eternity to Ray they reached the edge of the field, stalks dwindling into rough grass. Ray could see his house in the near distance, smoke pouring out of the chimney — the sun was far past its zenith and Mama would be preparing the evening meal.

The boy stopped abruptly and Ray stumbled a little, wincing in pain.

"Sorry," said the boy. "Listen, I can't go past the field."

"Why?" asked Ray, not willing to part with his new companion yet. He had been thinking about asking him home to supper, to show him off to his sisters and to tell the story of the rescued kite.

"I ... I'm not allowed," said the boy, mouth turning down at the corners and shrugging as he released his hold on Ray.

Now, finally, Ray looked closely at the boy's grubby tunic, curiosity at his words clearing his head from thoughts of pain. It was made of light, woven cloth, the same as his own but dyed in the pattern of earth reds and oranges that Ray had been taught to hate since he grew old enough to differentiate the colors from those of his own people.

"Oh," said Ray. "You're one of them."

The boy bridled. "Yeah, well, you're one of them."

Ray paused, considering. He hadn't thought of it that way and he didn't want the boy to be mad at him. He was home, he had his kite — what did it matter if someone in red and orange helped him rather than someone wearing the same blues and greens that Ray wore?

"Thank you," he said, smiling again and wrapping the kite string around his wrist one, two, three times.

The boy flashed a smile in return, teeth white and even. "I'm Ray," he said, sticking out a hand.

Ray took it. "No, I'm Ray," he said, grinning, delighted by the coincidence.

"Nice," said Ray. "That means we're best friends."

"It does?" asked Ray.

"It does," said Ray, sticking out his chest a little, staunch and determined.

Ray's heart beat a little faster; he'd never had a best friend before. "Will I see you again, then?" he asked, their warring colors worrying at him.

"'Course," said Ray. "I'll see you in the field." He turned and pointed to a vast oak that spread its branches like a protective father over the middle of the wheat-field. "Meet you there, yes?"

"Yes," said Ray and, "Yes," again. And he watched Ray as he skipped away until the stalks swallowed him up.

****

The years passed and the boys grew, playing together in the wheat-field each spring and summer as the stalks grew up around them, and huddling in the shelter of the oak, swaddled in cloaks against winter's savage bite. Their limbs grew long and their faces, too, lengthened, voices deepening as they stood on the edge of manhood. The enmity between the tribes had only grown and yet the two Rays had remained steadfast friends, hiding from the eyes of those who would part them.

Ray loved to laugh and he loved to fight and so did his friend. They fought each other for fun and they fought their foes for justice and many was the time one or the other would arrive at their meeting place bloodied and bruised from taking the part of one of the weaker children against village bullies. They would tend each others’, bickering back and forth to hide their concern.

Sometimes Ray would fling himself at the trunk of the great oak, sliding down its rough bark and curl up, sullen and still.

"I hate him," he would say and his friend would look at him with troubled eyes before reeling off into a long yarn of heroism and derring-do or shinning up the tree trunk as if the hounds of hell were at his heels, always bringing back a treasure — a nest, a crown of leaves, a strangely shaped acorn — and giving it to Ray, never failing to draw out a smile. Those were the days Ray found it hardest to understand how colors were supposed to shape who was good and who bad when he could see for himself how false a premise that was.

Ray would tell tales of how he was going to be a great warrior, famous among his people, and he would parry and thrust with his wooden sword, dancing and twisting out of the reach of Ray’s own, before a wrong move would cause him to lose his balance and he would fall at Ray’s feet, blue eyes laughing up at him. Ray never understood how someone who could move with such lithe grace one second could be so clumsy and awkward the next.

He did not wish to be a soldier, only to protect his family — even, to his own confusion, his Papa — who Ray loved with a fierce passion. Ray’s loyalty to his family and people was dogged and unswerving and was only matched by his loyalty to Ray. He knew his friend’s feelings were the same and by tacit agreement they never spoke of their differences, subduing the conflicting bonds that might otherwise tear them apart.

The hot sun beat down on Ray, spread-eagled on trampled wheat-stalks, sweat beading on his brow, dark hair slicked back with grease to keep it from irritating his face. Long, tanned legs stretched out from under his tunic. It was too short, Ray knew, but he could not have a new one until he was blooded and the next ceremony was still two moons away.

He heard the familiar thud-swish of Ray's sandaled feet kicking the stalks aside as he walked. Ray smiled, raising one hand to shade his eyes from the sun to watch as his friend dropped down beside him.

Ray was gawky now, a growth spurt leaving his limbs thin and bony, yet still wiry with strength. His hair — shorn close a few months earlier — now sticking up in clumps, the tips bleached white in the summer sun. Where Ray tanned olive, Ray's skin shone like burnished gold, and in his red and orange tunic he looked like he could be the son of Apollo himself.

"Hey there, Mundo," said Ray, sliding down to lie on the ground, close enough for Ray to feel the heat roiling off his skin and angling his head so that the spiky hair tickled at Ray's neck.

"Hey, Stanos," drawled Ray, letting his arm flop back down on his flat belly which growled under his hand as if angered by the intrusion.

"Hungry?" asked Ray, the grin evident in his voice.

"I'm always hungry," said Ray.

"Yeah, always eating, too. Only the gods know how you keep your girlish figure."

"Stop your mouth, Stanos," said Ray, his tone issuing a friendly challenge.

"Make me, Mundo." The challenge was accepted.

Grappling lightly, the youths wrestled, now one gaining the upper hand, now the other, rolling a circle into the crop. Ray's hand, slick with sweat, slid against Ray's thigh as he tried to grab at it and flip them over. It slipped under Ray's tunic and Ray snatched it away as if the skin there was furnace-hot. There were things, he knew, that were unacceptable, a trespass against the gods of his village, the gods of his people. He hurriedly placed the offending hand on the frayed leather rope that held Ray's tunic together and prayed that his transgression had gone unnoticed.

Ray loomed over him, burying a hand in Ray's dark hair, grasping Ray's upper arm in a tight, hot grip. He shifted so his thighs squeezed against Ray's side and Ray found himself transfixed by a stare such as he had never seen before. In it he saw friendship and sadness and fear and something he did not understand; couldn't. Above him, Ray licked his lips, breath coming harsh and shallow and he tightened his hold on Ray's hair, banging his head lightly off the ground before letting go and leaping to his feet, arms out wide in supplication or repudiation, Ray couldn't tell.

"Mundo, I ..." said Ray, turning swiftly on his heel and then back again, indecisive. He ran a hand through his hair and sighed.

Ray scrambled to his knees. Was this about what he had done? It was an accident! It meant nothing. Ray couldn't end their friendship over this, could he?

"What is it?" he asked when Ray failed to continue, doing his best to keep his voice level.

"I got to ... They said ... Ah, godsdamn." Ray also dropped to his knees, reaching out and circling Ray's wrist with his fingers.

"What?" said Ray, fear beginning to churn in his stomach. "Ray? What?"

"I can't come any more."

Ray found it almost impossible to hear anything else as the echo of those words pounded in his head.

"I have to go. The soldiers came and I have to go with them."

"No," said Ray. "No." It was a futile protest — their lives were not their own. They belonged first to the gods, second to the village and their people, third to their ancestors and fourth, only fourth, to themselves.

"I don't want to go," said Ray, mulish, the shadow of sorrow on his face like the clouds across the sun. He dropped Ray's wrist and straightened, digging into the supple leather pouch at his belt. "Look," he said. "I want you to have this."

From the bag he drew a pear, golden-skinned and freckled, and held it out to Ray in both hands, an offering. It was beautiful — almost too perfect — unbruised, unblemished, swelling from its stalk into plump, succulent flesh.

Ray looked at his friend and once again could not read his expression; his eyes were strangely dark, though an eager smile tugged at the edge of his mouth. "Thank you," he said and reached out to take the gift from Ray, cradling the warm fruit in his palm.

"Thank you," he said again, dropping his eyes, thumb rubbing softly over smooth skin.

The movement was repetitive, soothing, mesmerizing and Ray found he could not lift his eyes again, neither could he speak. He felt his friend's eyes on him, though, steady and searching, the quiet stillness of him unusual and unnerving. Ray realized that he was supposed to make some response but he did not understand the question that was being asked. He did not move his gaze from the pear.

He felt the thrum of his blood in the tips of his fingers as they rested on the fruit's golden skin. He counted a hundred pulses, more, and then he heard the smallest sigh, so quiet it could have been the breath of the wind, and then a rustle as Ray stood. Still Ray kept his eyes fastened to the pear in his hand. He counted another hundred, two hundred beats and when he finally looked up, Ray was gone.

****

War raged across the land for long years. The wheat-field, once ripe with possibilities, lay charred and ravaged, grey smoke from the stubble writhing into the air, scenting it with a perverse mixture of baking and blood. Ray looked about him; a few soldiers picked their way among the fallen, straightening the broken bodies, placing coins upon their eyes and muttering prayers. Others he saw in the distance, gathering wood, building pyres and laying men atop them. Strange that in death the colors they wore no longer mattered. Stranger that in life they did.

Ray knelt and attempted to wipe his sword on the ground, knowing that he could never really be free of the lives he had taken, their ghosts trailing him always, a clamoring chorus. This had been his life now for twenty years; compelled by circumstance into soldierhood, he had forgotten any other way to be. Go home for the winter months and then head out again on summer campaign. This was the first year that the fight had been brought so close to home. He had once believed that it would end, that right would prevail but now he knew there was no end, no right, only war and darkness and death.

Sheathing his sword he stood again, wiping the blood that dripped from a cut that curved the length of his left eye brow. One of the enemy had caught him a glancing blow when he had parried late. That was all the injury he had managed to inflict, though, Ray had run him through with the next thrust. It wasn't until he knelt over the soldier to see if he should make the sign on him for a medic that he realized how young he was, still a child. Ray had turned away just in time, voiding the contents of his stomach in a neat pile three feet from the body. His mind had flashed to another boy in red and orange and his heart hurt.

Sickened at the memory of the dead boy, Ray stumbled across the field, without thought heading for the place where he had always felt safe — the old oak tree. It had grown bigger still since Ray had last come here and its shade would be a shelter from the sun as well as the aftermath of the battle. They wouldn't look for him, not yet, the dead needed to be honored and the gods praised.

Ray spat. Praised for what? For sending more men to the slaughter? For widowing wives and orphaning children? He supposed he should thank the gods for not sending him a family of his own to mourn him when his luck ran out, but he'd had enough of them to last through this lifetime and the next.

Nearing the tree, blood dripped again from the cut into Ray's eye, momentarily blurring his vision. His foot caught on a gnarled root, unseen in the shadow of the canopy and he fell, graceless, sword clattering against metal. Metal? There was someone else there. Ray tensed immediately, hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Hey," came a voice he had known once, many years ago. "You wanna learn to look where you're going. Once a weak ankle, always a weak ankle."

And in the heat of the day a chill rippled across Ray's body and he rubbed wildly at his eyes, clearing them, shaking his head as if he did not trust his ears to tell him the truth. But when he stilled and looked, there was Ray, pale face dirtied and shadowed with the beginnings of a beard, hair hidden in a tarnished silver helmet, the colors of his red and orange tunic muted no longer by dirt but the darkness of blood, shield resting across his thighs, sword in one loose hand.

A rush of feeling surged up in Ray's chest and he had to restrain himself from crushing Ray in a bruising hug, not letting him go until he promised to stay alive, just stay alive.

"Hey," he said instead, inching closer to Ray, sliding one hand under his neck and lifting, the other gently removing the helmet and laying it on the ground. "You’re late. Twenty years at last count.”

Ray managed a weak smile and Ray's heart clenched tight. He stroked a hand through Ray's hair, matted with sweat and the grease they used to prevent the helmet rubbing welts into the skin. "It's going to be alright," he muttered. "You're going to be alright. You'll go home, fly kites, play with your children, annoy your wife. It will be fine, I promise."

He moved down Ray's body, eyes and fingers together cataloguing each bruise, each scratch. Slowly he ranged his hands over Ray's blood-stained tunic, terrified of what he might find.

"No wife, Mundo," came the reply as Ray worked. "No kids. No no one. Just me. And a turtle."

"A turtle?" asked Ray, trying to keep his tone light, puzzled as to why he could not find the source of the blood.

"Mmmm, fell from the sky. 'Gift from the gods,' the priest said. 'Gift from a heron, idiot,' I said."

"You're the idiot, Stanos," said Ray, wondering if the wound could be in Ray's side, exploring with hands that worked to stay steady. "Letting yourself get stabbed. Who does that?"

"Not me," replied Ray, leaning into Ray's touch a little. "Not my blood."

Ray's hands froze.

"Not your blood?" His voice sounded high like his sister's, but he didn't care. Suddenly there was more air around him, sweeter than he remembered, the stench of death retreating.

"Nope," said Ray, a slow grin spreading across his face. "I mean, I'm beat up, I've got a bruise the size of a swan egg on the back of my head and I think I broke a rib, but I am well. The other man? Not so lucky."

When they were children together Ray would not have hesitated in wrestling the smugness off his face or at least punching him in the shoulder but now ... now he did not know whether he wanted to grapple with Ray or to kiss him.

Kiss him.

And then Ray remembered. Fear and exhilaration gripped at his heart, turning it into a writhing pit of snakes, as he reached for the small pouch that he carried with him always and fumbled at the laces, fingers clumsy and unsure. He drew out the most precious thing he owned and held it out in hands smeared with dirt and blood and sweat, memories of the years that had passed since he had given the wrong answer to the only question he had ever wanted to be asked.

He hadn't understood, then, a youth of fifteen, uncertain in his own skin, insular and unable to parse the meaning of this gift from his friend — his best friend — who was also a stranger. Ray had not known his ways, not known what was offered and so he took the pear and did not look up and let Ray walk away unanswered.

The pear had been as beautiful to taste as it was to look at and Ray had been torn between devouring it greedily or taking it in slow bites, licking the juice as it ran down his fingers. When it was finished, Ray felt a powerful sense of loss and knew he would taste nothing so sweet again.

He had saved the solitary seed and planted it, watering it with care, sharing his own rations when the drought came. The pear tree had grown swiftly, strong and straight-trunked, reaching up as if it could hold the sky in its branches. On the fifth year it bore fruit, one single pear. Ray had plucked it when it seemed so ripe that it would burst its skin and had walked along the river bank to sit hidden beneath a weeping willow before he'd eaten it. It was good, but not like the first one had been — only a memory of the fruit he'd tasted all those years ago.

The pear tree had continued to grow but each year it bore only one fruit which Ray would take and eat and think of the boy he once was and the friend he had lost.

Then as the years passed, the campaigns had brought Ray into much contact with the red and orange tunics, prisoners and turncoats alike and he had searched among them, always hoping to find Ray but succeeding only in learning their ways, their traditions until finally he learned the secret of the golden pear and he forgot how to breathe.

He did not eat the fruit again after his discovery, but instead had carried it with him, ripe and ready, still looking. Always looking. The pear had strange qualities, it could not bruise, did not wrinkle but always stayed perfect and golden until the next pear began to grow on the tree. Ray did not question the ways of Mother Earth; she was a fickle goddess and to be feared.

So now Ray knelt, the golden pear warm in his hands and he looked at Ray, knowing that so much time had passed but his heart was still true and hoping, hoping. Ray blinked at the sight, seemingly shocked and he cocked his head to one side, furrowing his eyebrows. He was unsure, of course, Ray thought, and forced his head to bend in a reassuring nod.

Time slowed and Ray counted out his heart beats, aware of the trembling of his outstretched hands. In front of him, Ray struggled to lean on his elbow, wincing with pain, and reached out, plucking the pear from Ray, calloused fingertips brushing lightly against the heel of Ray's hand sending a shock of pleasure through him.

"I thank you for this gift," said Ray, bowing his head in the formal acceptance. "I would share it with you." The words should have sounded stiff in his mouth, so unlike his own were they, but they flowed like honeyed wine and Ray's heart soared.

Ray brought the pear to his mouth and bit into it, juice escaping down his chin. He chewed slowly, eyes never leaving Ray's face, and though the weight of twenty years bore him down, his expression was the same as it had been when the question was first asked, only Ray could read the longing in it now because it was a reflection of his own.

His friend held out the pear and Ray took it, biting so that their teeth marks mingled together. The taste and scent of it filled his mouth, filled his nostrils, filled him up with its sweetness and even the first pear had not been so good. Ray could not help the smile that spread across his face and was helpless, too, against the urge that begged him to kiss the answering smile on Ray's. Careful not to antagonize the broken rib he slid a hand over Ray's shoulder, broader now and sinewed and let his thumb stroke over the sun-baked skin of his upper arm. He leaned in, balance precarious, and pressed sticky lips to Ray's.

Ray's mouth pressed back, opening under his, and their tongues moved around each other, searching for the taste of the pear and maybe for something else. Breaking the kiss before he fell over, Ray rocked back on his knees and brought the pear up to his friend's — his lover's? — lips.

"As I would share this fruit with you, so I share my life," he said, the words tumbling out unsteady as if he hadn't rehearsed them for years, never entirely ready to give up hope.

"And I with you," Ray replied, bringing up his hand to steady Ray's wrist as he took another bite.

Phaeton's chariot was long at rest when Ray could turn his attention to anything that wasn't this man in his arms. He looked out across the battlefield. In the flare of firelight from the camps he could just make out the dark humps of the tents, set far across the field from each other. If he had not known it would have been impossible for him to tell in this light which tents' flags flew blue and green and which red and orange. He tightened his grip on Ray's hand.

"I can't fight any more, Stanos," Ray said, gesturing to where his sword and scabbard lay abandoned in the dirt. "They're your people and that makes them my people. I can't kill my people — the gods have laws about that sort of thing. There's probably already a special area of Hades cordoned off for me for the laws I'm just thinking of breaking, I don't want to make it worse."

"Same here," agreed Ray. "Enough is enough. I wanna buy a farm and raise chickens and grow things and maybe even milk things if they'll stay still long enough."

"You can't milk chickens, Ray. Turtles neither."

"See, this is why I'm gonna farm with you. You know things." Ray's broad smile was just visible in the deep twilight.

"I dabble here and there." Ray smoothed a hand across Ray's forehead. "What can you do, besides get beat up?"

"I can do things," said Ray, voice thrumming with promise. "Lots of things."

Ray's pulse quickened and he regretted the injuries that meant Ray had to be handled with care. Soon, he thought, soon.

"It won't be easy," he said. "We'll have to go away. Far. Maybe north." He shivered in anticipation of the cold.

"Wherever you go, I'll go," said Ray as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

And maybe it was.


Contact Cat

Or comment at my LJ