nighttime

It is long dark by the time Bastien returns to his rooms. The day has been a long one: Jio is making noises about promoting him soon, but he’s still holding out–it’s only another year before the exam, and while he hasn’t taken on an apprentice in years, there is one in particular that he’s interested in–

He pauses in the doorway to his room. He looks around slowly in the dark and frowns. He sighs, then walks over to the bed and takes a good double handful of his blankets–then gave a good hard yank. There’s a loud indignant squawk as a small body tumbles to the floor in a tangle of sheets. A moment later, a tousled blond head emerges from the mess, just visible in the silver of light that comes from the still-open door.

Bastien sighs and starts folding the blankets. “Frau,” he says sternly. “You’re breaking curfew.”

Frau sits with his shoulders hunched and his knees hitched up. It’s a posture that’s not unlike a wounded animal. He doesn’t look up, staring balefully at a spot somewhere past Bastien’s knees. “No one pays attention,” he mutters. “They saythere’s a curfew, but who’s even looking? You don’t even have a guard or anything.”

“Of course we don’t, Bastien says, placid. He puts the re-folded blankets onto the bed, then crouches down. “This is a church, not a prison.”

Frau’s eyes dart up towards his face for a moment, then away again. His jaw is set in an impressive scowl for his young child-soft face. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Bastien sighs again. He puts a hand on the ground to brace himself and moves from a crouch to a seated position–he’s not old yet, certainly, but his knees are protesting the movement more than they did even a year ago. He leans forward, but not so far that he crowds the boy, and he says, “Frau. Why would you say such a thing?”

“Nothing with this many rules isn’t a prison,” Frau mumbles. His voice trails off as he speaks, as if he can’t quite make himself finish the phrase. “Why wouldn’t I think that?”

“There are rules in every society,” Bastien says. “This is how we keep ourselves pure, so that we may set an example for the rest of the w–”

Before he can finish, something rockets forward, striking him center in the chest. Taken by surprise, Bastien falls back, thumping into the side of his bed, and Frau is kissing him, inexpertly and clumsily and more than a little violent; his startled indrawn breath tastes like blood. Frau shakes like a leaf in a storm, tucked into a tight ball in Bastien’s lap, and Bastien is so shocked that he lets it go for a few seconds before he very firmly puts his hands on Frau’s shoulders and pushes him back.

“Generally,” he says, still gentle, still unruffled, “if you want something like that, the thing to do is ask, first.”

Frau’s pale face is defiant. There is a smear of blood on the corner of his mouth. He’s still shaking. “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asks.

“Hmm?”

“I’ve heard stories,” Frau goes on, trying so hard for cocky and sounding more like a lost little boy. It’s the worst he’s sounded in nearly a year, and that troubles Bastien. He sounds more like the boy who first came to the church, abandoned by his companions through death and trying so hard to pretend he didn’t care. “Priests like that sort of thing, don’t they? You don’t care about pictures or anything like that, so–so if it’s a real person, if it’s a boy–”

“Frau,” Bastien says. His voice is still gentle, but it’s still so absolute that Frau’s blustering cuts off immediately. “You are a beloved child of this church and a student whom I think very highly of. I think you could go very far, if only you tried. And–” he holds up a finger and affects his sternest frown, “it’s not a child’s position to presume how and where an adult spends his time. You’re still very young if you think something like that is enough to move me.”

For a moment, Frau just stares. His small face is so mobile, it’s astonishing; Bastien has never met anyone quite so expressive. He goes from shocked to disbelieving to–insulted–in the space of a couple of heartbeats. “Hey–hey! I’m not that much of a kid! I’m good at that, okay! I–”

“Yes, yes,” Bastien says indulgently. He gets to his feet, wincing a little when his knees crack. “I know. Let’s get you back to bed, all right?”

Frau looks at him and his outstretched hand. He squirms a little, going shift-eyed. “Mumblemumble,” he says.

Bastien continues to wait. “What?”

“I said, mumblemumblemumble,” Frau says. He glances up at Bastien’s patient face, then sighs loudly, squirming in spot. “… can I stay here … ?”

Bastien’s eyebrows both rise nearly to his hairline. “What was that?”

“Not like that!” Frau scowls fiercely. “I don’t mean like that! I just–I dunno, I thought–you know what, never mind! I’ll go! You didn’t have to complain so much!”

As he scrambles to his feet, Bastien sighs. “Only tonight,” he says. “You’re getting too old for this sort of thing. And you mustn’t brag about it, all right?”

Frau pauses. His back is framed in the light from the doorway, and his shoulders are still tense and unhappy. “Like I’d do that,” he mutters. “I don’t want–”

“If you kick or steal the covers, you’ll sleep on the floor,” Bastien says. He turns his back politely, undoing the heavy clasp of his outer robe, as he heads to the small wardrobe he keeps in the back of his room. “I’m getting changed.”

He takes his time deliberately. He hears the door close. When he turns and lets his eyes adjust to the dark, he can see a small lump curled on the right side of his bed. He smiles as he crosses over, and he slides into bed without disturbing his companion. It takes long seconds, but Frau finally unfolds, lying less like a defensive soldier, and more like a person ready for sleep.

“Good night,” Bastien says into the dark. “May you have good dreams.”

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