Find out in Chapter 12 of The One That Feels.
Note: This chapter contains some graphic violence. Be warned.
New to the story? Check it out from the beginning.
Brian looked up. “You’re back?” he asked. He sounded desperate.
He stood as I shook my head and moved toward me.
“No! Stay there.”
“What?” Brian looked at me, confused. “Why?”
“I am not here, Bri. This is not real, not in the way you’re thinking.”
“This is as close as you get,” I said, my voice firm. “We’re in a dream.”
“It feels real.” His voice was sullen. I could see his grip on Jordan’s hand loosen.
“Keep hold of his hand,” I snapped, harsher than I wanted. “Don’t let go.”
Brian’s surprise was evident as he looked down and realized he was at Jordan’s bedside, as though he had forgotten. He gulped and sat down, pulling the hand to his lips. “I’m losing him, Thom.” The words were mumbled into his lover’s skin, a confession. Not a new one. He’d known it when he first sought me out.
Brian cursed. “You know I don’t understand this stuff.” I could feel the accusation. Perhaps it was deserved. I had cherished all the things about Brian that made not explaining easy.
“I do,” I said, whisper quiet. “You used to trust me.”
I still trust you, his voice sounded in my head. More than anything.
I didn’t smile. It was one of the only things I’d taught him, that he could send me thoughts that way. Even being anchored in the Real couldn’t prevent that. I looked down at Jordan. “He looks thinner,” I said. It was a hard statement. He had always been thin, but now he looked like the drug addict that I’d long known him to be.
“He does,” said Brian, his voice choking. “Don’t think I don’t know I’d be better off… you were good for me.” He looked away as he said it, like he was embarrassed to admit it.
“He’s not. Good for you, I mean,” I said. Firm. Harsh. Soft enough that he would know I still cared. “You know it, don’t you?”
Brian didn’t look up from Jordan’s hand. He just pressed the young man’s fingers against his mouth as he nodded.
“Why then? Why him?”
“I love him.”
“You love me too. Don’t think I don’t know it.”
Brian shook his head. “It’s not the same. Please, Thom. Don’t. I can’t doubt. Not now.”
That was certainly true, with Jordan stuck in the Realm. “He’ll do this again,” I said. “I can’t drop everything and rescue him again. I won’t. This is the last time, Bri.”
“Why this time?” he asked, looking up. My heart jumped at the sight of his eyes, and just as quickly I stilled it.
He saw the leap. And the quelling of it. We’d been together long enough for him to read those things. He shook, a little, as he looked at me.
“You still love me, right?” asked Brian. I could see the doubt in his eyes. For him that love was a truth. As it had been for me. Enduring for both of us even as his joy with Jordan seemed to grow endlessly.
“You say it like it’s a good thing,” I said, bitterly. “Like I should be happy that I still love you years after you fucking left me!”
Brian gulped. “I told you I’d leave him. If you’ll just save him, I’d—”
“You won’t. Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t do it. If I could bind you with the Realm’s power, you would take its punishment to be with him. So be with him, Bri. I will bring him back. But you have to bind him. This can’t happen again.”
“You want me to…” He shuddered. I’d told Brian once what was involved. There could be no changing his mind.
“This can’t happen again. You can’t follow him if it does. This is the last time, I mean it.”
Brian closed his eyes against the tears. “You’re going to bring him back?”
I am. The thought echoed from my heart to his. But I can’t promise I’m coming back with him.
Brian’s eyes shot open and got wide. “Thom?”
I looked at him very sadly and turned around.
“What’s happening?” asked Brian.
I gulped and let the words fall out. They were barely whispered, but I knew he heard them. “I will always love you, Bri.”
“Keep the link strong,” I said quietly as I faded from view. “Pour your soul into it. He has to want to come back.” I do love you. “Make sure he has reason to.”
* * *
I winced at the sting as the lash tore at my back. I shook, holding back the screams. Holding back anything that might give the bastard satisfaction.
“Where is my son?” It was a bellow that could be heard on a battlefield. A familiar bellow. I remembered it. Did he?
I kept my silence. The lash came quicker. The wet ran down my back and pooled against the waist of my trousers. The remains of my shirt stuck, plastered by the gore against what was left of my skin.
“Where!” he thundered.
I glanced up at him only to have my head forced back down by a faceless guard. Of course. It wouldn’t do for a nothing of the Real to look upon the king.
“You touched a dream. Whose?”
I managed to keep my response to the lash to a whimper.
“I said whose!”
I glared at him, and only his quick nod at the guard kept me from being forced down again. “You caught me returning,” I growled through clenched teeth. “Retrace my steps and look. I dare you.”
He grabbed me by the throat and squeezed. Nem’s father was strong, but I spat into his face anyway.
I heard the smack more, at first, I think, than I felt it, his hand hitting my cheek, tearing through the skin, as the blow sent me to the floor and the faceless guards held me there against the black flagstone.
“Why have you taken my son?” He kicked me hard in the ribs and this time I cried out.
“I see,” said the king, walking around me. “You have a breaking point.”
“Everyone does,” I groaned. I choked and spit. Blood stained the ground. “Don’t flatter yourself to think a scream means you’ve reached it.”
I watched his elegant boots as he circled me.
“Why can’t I reach him?” he demanded. Silence brought only another swift kick. “Tell me!”
I screamed as he kicked again. Ribs buckled under the blow and my scream this time was one of pure agony.
“Why is some petty creature of the Real—”
“I am the One That Feels,” I said, interrupting.
I was rewarded with another swift kick. “Insolence! You dare to speak? And to tell such a lie! He is gone. Long ago.”
The lash cracked in the air behind me and then dragged against the stone behind me. It was a sound meant to make me fear, and it was working. The lash cracked hard against my back, ripping flesh. Then, rather than whip me again, he pressed his boot against the torn flesh at my shoulder and ground my body between his boot and the floor.
“You are blocking my way, somehow.” He pressed his heel into my shoulder. I knew the king of Zaharoth. That he drew pleasure from such misery was no surprise. “Blocking me from my son. How dare you! He is mine.”
I turned struggling against the pressure at my shoulder until I met the baleful glare of his red eyes with one of my own. “And I have told you already—he is not.”
He moved the boot to my skull, pressing the iron sole into my face. “I could end you now. You couldn’t protect him then. You couldn’t hide him then. I should, insolent child of flesh. You dare—”
I let my power open then. Let him feel. Let his face take the force of his own boot stamping down. He reeled backwards, not expecting it, the power for which I’d been given the title, and he stumbled to catch himself. The faceless guards were constructs, never feeling anything, and so even the bit of pain I forced into their clockwork skulls sent them too stumbling away.
I was barely able to stand, but once I managed to struggle to my feet I stared directly into those red eyes. “You will not reach him,” I said, my voice flat. “You can whip me until you flay the skin from my back, but your lash will never touch Nem again.”
“He is mine,” screamed the king. He straightened and readied his lash, only to find it gone. He glared at me. “What did you do?”
“I have told you already,” I said. “I have more power in a dream than you.”
“You send your dreams across Zaharoth. They are mine to do with as I will.”
“Dreams belong to no one, not even to kings of the Realm,” I said. “That is how tyrants fall, for it is easy to dream of hope even when none exists. And so hope can never be extinguished.”
“I will go to this place that you visit in your dreams,” said the king. “I will go in the Real.”
The faceless guards had recovered now and they were surrounding me again, the king with a foul expression on his face glaring as one of the faceless creatures handed him another lash. “You do not seek to dissuade me?”
“You would not find it,” I said, quite directly. “And if by chance you did, you would be dragged wholly into the depths of my world and you would die a death quicker than you deserve. A true death.”
“I will have my son back.”
“You cannot block me forever.”
I narrowed my gaze. “I think you’d be surprised.”
“Your little trick does not impress me. I have hurt you, and all you have done is make me feel a discomfort that will be gone when I wake.”
“Yet I will have the wounds you have given me. And your son, he will see them, and know what you do to him here is more than just a dream,” I said seriously.
“He is mine!” shouted the king, his eyes burning. “My creature, to use and control as I will.”
“And that is why you lose him,” I said. “He is your son”—I glanced at the suddenly advancing faceless guards—“and you do him harm.”
“You interfere in things you don’t understand, child of the Real,” he snarled. Then he nodded and the faceless creatures attacked. It didn’t take long for them to overwhelm me. For them to hold me back so that the king could backhand me. For them to splay my limbs so that the king could whip me at his leisure and flay the skin from my back, as I had dared him to do.
For a long time I screamed. But it was worth it. Nem, my Nem. You are safe.
* * *
Perhaps it was the thought of Nem, so focused and crystal clear that bought me my escape, taking me far from the king and his guards. I stood, quietly invisible as Nem touched the face of the creature that was meant to be me. As he caressed it. Kissed it. His hands were so delicate in the way he touched the thing’s hair, its face, its shoulders. And they moved quickly, removing its shirt.
He’d not seen me without my shirt, only my back where the lash had hit, and from this alone, he should have realized by now it was a dream. The way his eyes were fixed on my arms, on my face, on the pieces of me he had seen, these were all his clues. But he was not so focused. Nem had finally fallen into dream and I could sense his excitement—palpable. Him, me. A false me, but he was dreaming. And he was touching.
“I am the One That Feels,” I whispered softly, too softly for him to hear. But I could feel the hands on that face. On the thing’s chest. I could feel them as if I was the one on the bed. As if I was the one being kissed, and touched, and loved. He moved his hands frantically as he touched the thing, as he held it.
“Are you sure? Please, please tell me you’re sure,” he said.
“Oh, Nem. Oh, please, Nem. I love you,” the thing replied. And from the grin on Nem’s face, from that look of total completion and happiness, I knew that was what he wanted from the creature. What he wanted from me.
“Oh, Thommas,” he said, and then his lips were again pressed against it. And then, as suddenly, he backed away from the thing.
“This isn’t right,” he said. I watched him as he glanced furiously about, making a desperate attempt to pull his shirt back on.
“What? I love you,” said the thing, trying to peel Nem’s shirt back off of him.
“No! It’s not true. It’s not right!” shouted Nem.
“What’s wrong, love?” asked the thing, trying to hold him as Nem squirmed away.
“I’m… I’m dreaming. No! NOOOO!” Nem frantically pulled away from the thing, trying to get out of the bed.
“But love,” said the thing. “It’s a good dream.”
“No! Thommas, don’t you understand? He’ll find me!” The young man crouched against the side of the bed on the floor. “He’ll come and he’ll take me away.”
“Oh, Nem. I would make you happy.”
His voice was tiny and sad as he spoke. “You’re not real.”
The thing that was meant to be me dissolved. Nem cradled his own head between his knees, curled into a ball. “Please. Please,” he said, his voice quiet and pleading. “I need you.”
I moved to him. I was still invisible, but he sensed me all the same.
I crouched down and wrapped him in my arms. “You needed me.”
“He’ll come for me! It’s not safe.”
“Shh,” I said, and I kissed his shoulder gently. “His way is blocked.”
“He’s the king. He’ll—”
“Dreams belong to no man,” I said. “Trust me. You’re safe.”
“It’s really you?” asked Nem desperately. “How do I know it’s really you?”
“In a dream it is always hard to know for sure,” I said honestly. “But I am real enough.”
Nem glanced at the bed. “It said it loved me. That… that you loved me.” He hid his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Can you possibly think I don’t know that’s what you want to hear?” I asked softly.
He pulled his head back from between his legs and cried out as he saw the bruises across my face, the torn cheek. He skirted his fingers across my face and his face scrunched in horror.
“Blocking your father from your dreams is no easy task,” I said quietly.
“He hurt you? No… nononono! He can’t!”
“He did. But I am fine.”
Nem’s gaze darted quickly about my body, and it couldn’t miss the signs of his father’s abuse. “You’re dripping blood. That’s blood, Thommas. He whipped you.” Tears glittered silver in the corners of his eyes.
Defeat seeped from his voice and infected him with fear and doubt.
“Nem. Nem,” I said the name louder this time. “Look at me.”
Hesitant gray eyes glanced at me, darted away, and then glanced back.
“Did you really want this?” I asked. “What I saw in the dream?”
“Please don’t hate me,” he said, his voice pitifully soft.
I tipped up his chin and leaned forward, catching his lips against mine. He reached to caress my face and I winced.
“Sorry,” said Nem, his fingers so carefully touching anyplace that wasn’t bruised. “Will you heal? I mean… will these last?” His gaze didn’t move from the bruises, his face speaking heartache.
I didn’t answer right away. Instead I caught and held his lips and his breath and his touch until I could barely breathe from the tightness in my chest and I broke away. “I will”—I kissed him—“heal some”—again, my lips dying to touch his—“by making—” My tongue sought his, and the last word was incoherent as our tongues met and our lips sealed against each other and we stayed like that for a long time, even for a dream.