“You can’t just say things like that!” Toby protested, looking furtively around. It was late afternoon, and plenty of people were about in the street, but none seemed to be paying them much attention.
“What?” Gabe asked, shrugging with an innocence spoiled by his grin. “It’s a compliment!”
“It’s not respectful!”
“Oh, come on, all I’m saying is she’s hot. Where’s the harm in that? She’s not even my type, I like ladies with a little something to hold on to,” he said, leering and making a squeezing motion with both hands.
Toby slapped a hand to his face. “Gabriel, would you talk like that in front of her?”
“What, you think I’m an idiot?”
He didn’t take the bait. “If you’re talking about a lady in a way you wouldn’t be willing to say to her face, then it’s not a compliment and you know it. Mrs. Tanner’s always been nice to us; you should show her respect.”
“Bah,” Gabriel said, rolling his eyes. “You’re starting to sound like Ms. Avelea.”
“Uh huh, and how many times has Ms. Avelea been wrong that you know of?”
“About what, history? How would I know? All I know about it is from her class!”
“I…I just… That’s such a golden opportunity to make a comment about all you know about anything, but there are just so many I can’t pick one.”
“You’re a jerk,” Gabe said, elbowing him without rancor. “Get down off your altar, chorus boy. I’m a thirteen-year-old man who was not raised in a monastery. This is all perfectly natural, not that you’d know.”
“What I know is the phrase ‘thirteen-year-old man’ is wrong at least twice.”
“Oh, now you’re sounding like every teacher we’ve ever had. You can’t do this to me, Toby! Don’t join the adults! It’s us against them!”
Toby didn’t bother pointing out the contradiction in this, peering around again at the street. Still, they weren’t garnering much attention, but he had learned not to relax his guard around Gabriel. The combination of his friend’s seeming inability to keep his mouth shut and the prejudices of a fair number of people in the district could be dangerous. What would be laughed off as boyish hijinks from anyone else suddenly looked a lot more sinister coming from the neighborhood half-demon.
The Lower Middle Western Ward, commonly called the Wide Spot for no known reason except that nobody could be bothered with its official name, was a poor district, but not a rough one. Rather than criminals, it attracted more harmless undesirables—not the kind who occupied Drowtown, or Lor’naris as folk were calling it these days, but gnomes, dwarves, a few elves who dressed and acted “civilized” rather than in keeping with their own culture, and miscellaneous Imperial citizens who’d managed to make themselves unwelcome elsewhere. For example, by working in the the non-Vidian theater, or being a little too fond of glittershrooms, or siring a son by a demoness.
The streets were patrolled by both military police and Thieves’ Guild enforcers, both equally likely to smile and chat with the locals. Notably, most of the locals knew who the enforcers were, this was such a Guild-friendly district. People in the Wide Spot didn’t want trouble, and could get rid of it simply by pointing at it in the presence of a soldier or enforcer. Most adopted a live-and-let-live mentality, but more than a few had pointed at Gabriel over the years. Fortunately, Jonathan Arquin had had the foresight to approach both the Army and the Guild upon moving in, explaining that being a half-demon was neither illegal nor disruptive to business. The soldiers were more accommodating toward a man who’d once worn their uniform than they otherwise might have been, and the Eserites, despite not generally being what Toby would call ethical, were some of the least judgmental people in the world. Trouble didn’t tend to stick to Gabriel long enough to get serious, but it still fell his way even more often than he deserved. Which was saying something.
The Wide Spot contained shroom farms, at least one brothel, and money changers who were not attached to the cult of Verniselle, to name a few of its more unsavory features. However, it also had an Imperial Army police station, a fairly good Imperial public school, and of course the Omnist complex, incorporating a small temple, monastery and missionary office. It was a safe enough district for two boys to roam around in, but still interesting to make it worthwhile for them to do so.
Among its amenities was the misleadingly-named Tannery, the shop they now approached, its window display filled with jars of sweets. Gabriel actually grinned and rubbed his hands together before pulling the door open and stepping inside.
“Alms for the poor?” he cried out tremulously on the threshold.
Eshani Tanner smiled wryly at him from behind the counter. “If I see any, I’ll be sure to give. Hello, Gabriel, Tobias.”
Mr. Tanner mostly worked in the back, making sweets and leaving his pretty elven wife to man the counter, a tactic that had served them well in business. Gabriel was far from alone in his assessment of her.
“But look at the poor guy!” Gabe said piteously, shoving Toby forward. “They never give him any candy at that prison!”
Toby shot him a quelling look, which of course was ignored. Growing up in a monastery devoted to the god of agriculture, he’d been reared on the freshest produce available, and learned to enjoy it. He liked a little candy now and then—who didn’t?—but didn’t have nearly the sweet tooth Gabriel did.
“Hello, Mrs. Tanner,” he said politely.
“He’s wasting away!”
“I am taller than you,” he exclaimed, nudging Gabe right back.
“Hey, hey,” Eshani admonished gently. “No roughhousing, boys. Will it be the usual this week, or are you inclined to be adventurous?”
“Pfft, Toby doesn’t know the meaning of the word,” Gabriel said cheerfully, swaggering forward and opening his meager coin purse to extract his allowance.
“I know the meaning of enough other words to get by,” Toby retorted. “And to help you with your homework.” He stepped forward as he spoke, fishing out his own money. It would be preferable to collect his lemon drops and go before…
“Hey, guys,” said Raslin, entering from the back room with a crate in his arms. He set this down beside the counter, grunting. “Here you go, Mom.”
Eshani tousled her son’s hair affectionately with one hand, measuring out scoops of little yellow candies into two brown paper bags with the other. Raslin had her blonde coloring, though aside from being on the lanky side he looked fully human. He grinned at Gabriel, giving Toby a wink; Toby cleared his throat uncomfortably, averting his eyes.
“There you go, boys,” Eshani said, then paused, smiling, and tipped another couple of lemon drops into Toby’s bag. “For your poor, deprived nutrition, Tobias. And for Gabriel, for being such a good friend,” she added, giving him an extra couple.
Gabe gave her puppy eyes in return. “Oh, come on. I’m a better friend than that.”
“Gabe!” Toby exclaimed. “Don’t be greedy!”
Eshani, though, smiled at him, and added one more lemon drop. “And another because a lady always likes to be complimented. Most prefer to be complimented with a bit more grace, but I make allowances for a man of thirteen.”
Gabriel’s smile slid from his face. “I, uh… What?”
Grinning now, Mrs. Tanner tapped the pointed tip of her left ear with one finger.
Suddenly looking sickly, Gabe swallowed so hard it was audible even to those without elven hearing. “I, uh, I… Oh, look, somebody I…that…yeah.” He turned and bolted from the shop, leaving his coin purse and bag of lemon drops on the counter. Toby sighed.
Eshani Tanner, though, laughed. Then, to Toby’s horror, she flicked a quick, sly glance from him to Raslin. “Ras, would you mind finishing up here? I need to go check on your father.”
“Sure thing, Mom,” he said casually, stepping over to the register. Toby drew in a deep breath, mentally running through his calming exercises while the elf slipped out the back way, leaving him alone in the shop with Raslin. Why did it have to be so quiet? After the last time he’d promised himself only to come here during peak shopping hours.
Raslin was a picture of calm efficiency as he counted out coins and made change.
“Thanks,” Toby said quickly, gathering up both bags and tucking Gabriel’s purse into a pocket alongside his own. “I’ll just…take these out to him.”
“Of course,” Raslin said with perfect innocence, giving him a bland smile. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
“I, um, no thanks. See you in school, I guess.” He started to turn away.
The half-elf was over the counter in a liquid bound; for all that he looked human, he had speed and agility that was well beyond even Toby’s athleticism, and Toby had been practicing the martial arts since he could walk. Good as he was at grappling, he was thrown off his game by the bags of candy, one in each hand, and quickly found himself maneuvered against the wall of shelves.
Then again, perhaps he didn’t struggle as hard as he might have.
Jars of confections rattled as they struck; Toby had just barely started a protest when Raslin’s lips pressed against his own, and he completely forgot what he was going to say. The boy was a year older and a bit taller; he was slim, but Toby wasn’t exactly burly either. Rarely did he feel so overpowered. Never did he so little mind it.
It was an embarrassingly long few seconds before he twisted his head away, finishing that protest. “Someone will see!”
“Meh,” Raslin said expressively, giving him that wicked grin that Toby knew he shouldn’t find so beguiling before diving back in.
He struggled loose in breathless, half-hearted stages. “No,” he panted, finally wriggling out of Raslin’s grip and putting some space between them. “I told you…”
“And you keep telling me,” Ras replied with a languid smile, no longer chasing after him. “Yet, here we still are. Each time, you’re in a little less of a hurry to leave.”
Toby opened his mouth to reply, but found he had nothing to say. Ducking his head, he turned and fled the shop after Gabriel, the half-elf’s laughter ringing behind him.
“There you are,” Gabe hissed from the next shop down, beckoning him over. “Gods, did you stop to chat? I was about to go back in and fetch you.”
“No, you weren’t,” Toby snapped. “It’ll be next week before you have the guts to show your face in there again, which is your own fault. I warned you about that!”
Gabe reared back in surprise. “I… Well, yeah, okay. Sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Toby demanded in exasperation. “You didn’t do anything to me except be embarrassing. Which I’m sadly used to. Here, take your junk.”
The other boy did so, frowning. “Hey, are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Toby said tersely, digging out Gabriel’s coin purse now that he had a free hand. “And here. You have got to start keeping track of your stuff, Gabe. I’m not gonna be around to hold your hand forever.”
“Man, what is it with you today?” Gabriel asked, exasperated. “Every time I turn around you’re sounding more and more like a teacher.”
Toby unconsciously scrubbed his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yeah… Well… I guess we have to start growing up sometime.”
“I think I was just talking about that very thing a little bit ago,” Gabriel said, popping a lemon drop into his mouth.
“Gabe, making lewd comments about women you know doesn’t make you grown up. It kind of does the opposite.”
“That’s not sport!”
He grinned. “Spoil…sin?”
“Well, yes. I am a monk.” After a moment, he had to smile back.
“Oh, good, you’re still here!”
Toby started violently; a couple of lemon drops spilled to the pavement. He whirled to find Raslin smirking at him.
“Oh, hey, Ras,” Gabe said a little guiltily.
“Gabe,” the half-elf said with a smug smile. “So, still drawing an allowance from your old man?”
Gabriel’s expression hardened. “What’s it to you?”
Raslin shrugged casually. “Hey, I’m the last person to make fun of a guy for liking candy. I mean, I don’t really plan on going into the family business, but it’s hard to argue with candy, right? Sweet stuff is always good. But man, wouldn’t you rather be earning some real money instead of mooching like a little kid?”
This was setting off all kinds of alarms in Toby’s head, but he found himself tongue-tied. The paper bag crinkled in his grip.
Fortunately, Gabriel wasn’t as dense as he sometimes acted. “Now hold it. I know this pitch; I’ve gotten this pitch before. Whatever you’re into, you can forget it, Ras. Some of us don’t have the luxury of getting tied up with the wrong people. I make one good mistake and my head’s on a chopping block under a blessed ax.”
“Come on, now, would I do that to you?” Ras asked with such an air of wounded innocence that Gabriel burst into derisive laughter.
“Man, you don’t need to call me stupid. Which you basically just did. What about you setting up Travis Bond to get in trouble for you painting on the school blackboard? And everybody knows about you ‘helping’ Faila Mavanour climb the clock tower to ‘see the city lights’ and then not letting her down till you got a kiss.”
“Okay, that did not happen the way she said,” Raslin said piously. “Girls have to be careful of their reputations. Sometimes they’re perfectly willing and then decide after the fact that they weren’t, when they’re telling the story. You want some good advice, don’t trust Faila farther than you can throw her.”
Toby forced his hands to relax, then forced the image of Raslin and Faila out of his head. That wasn’t helping his equilibrium any.
“All right, fine,” Gabe said, audibly skeptical. “But there are a dozen other stories like that. You’re kind of a snake, Raslin. I dunno whether this is one of your practical jokes or you’re actually into something illegal, but count me out.”
“Now, you hear that?” Raslin asked Toby. “This is the thanks I get. I promise you it’s nothing illegal, Gabriel. And as for jokes, I wouldn’t do that to you. Sure, some people are just asking to be taken down a peg, but us half-bloods gotta stick together. Am I right? I just thought you’d like a chance to make some real money, is all. A man should work for his keep.”
“I do work,” Toby heard himself say. “And I don’t need any more money than the monastery gives me.”
“Yes, Toby, we all know that,” Raslin replied with an exaggeratedly patient tone that stung Toby a lot harder than it should have. “I was talking to Gabe, here. Look, if you want in, you can join us at the old DawnCo factory at midnight.”
“Are you on the shrooms?” Gabriel exclaimed. “Midnight? And you’re asking me to believe this is legitimate?”
“All right, it is Thieves’ Guild business—”
“I knew it!”
“But! Not everything the Guild does is illegal, you know. They’ve got to do a lot of legitimate commerce, too. Stealing money and valuables is one thing; they can’t steal their supplies and equipment, or the people who make that stuff would all have it out for ’em. It’s just very basic warehouse work. Moving boxes around, that’s it. The Guild is just more comfortable working after dark and in private, is all. Smaller guys like us’d be relegated to sorting and counting, stuff like that. It’s pretty good pay for the kind of work, and a chance to make contacts.”
“Those aren’t contacts you need, Gabe,” Toby warned.
“Don’t I know it,” Gabriel said darkly.
“And,” Raslin went on patiently, “I get a bonus for bringing you in, so I’d owe you a favor.”
“I don’t…know,” Gabe hedged.
Raslin shrugged again. “Hey, the offer’s there. A few hours of work, twenty in silver.”
Gabriel’s eyes popped. “Twenty silver? Twenty?”
“The Guild can afford to pay well,” Ras said smugly. “And it’s good policy for them to keep their workers happy.”
“Gabe!” Toby said sharply. Gabriel glanced back and forth between him and Raslin, indecision written plainly on his features.
Raslin grinned. “Look, you don’t have to decide right now. Think it over. You want an easy payday and the chance of more in the future, just show up. DawnCo plant, midnight. Now, onto another subject, just what kind of compliments have you been paying my mom?”
Gabriel’s ears flushed bright pink. “Oh, I, um… Hey, I gotta get home, my dad’s waiting. Um, bye.” He turned and bolted off down the sidewalk, not waiting for Toby.
Raslin laughed with a derisive edge, his gaze growing sharper as he turned it on Toby. “He’s gonna find out sooner or later,” he said quietly.
Toby might have replied, or might not. All he was really conscious of was pounding off after Gabriel, getting himself away from there as quickly as possible.
The Wide Spot was one of the relatively few districts in Tiraas where it got significantly dark. There were still fairy lamps, of course, but only on the streets themselves. The buildings didn’t glow the way much of the city did; most of their inhabitants couldn’t afford fairy lights, and a lot couldn’t afford to burn candles or oil lamps after dark, either because the things themselves were expensive or because they had work in the morning and lacked the luxury of staying up late. All this made it an attractive district for after-dark shenanigans of various kinds. Of course, the people doing them also weren’t lighting any lamps, at least not where they could be publicly seen.
So, though Toby had never snuck out before, he didn’t find it hugely challenging. A lifetime of building a good reputation with the monks among whom he lived meant he had a good bit of leeway in his personal schedule. Getting out of the monastery was fairly simple, as was navigating the streets, which he knew like the halls of his own home. A few times he passed subtly moving shadows in alleys that were clearly people, and studiously ignored him. Not his business.
Everyone knew the DawnCo factory; Toby had been too young to pay much attention when it had closed, but that had been bad news for the whole district. The Wide Spot had recovered, mostly, people finding other work, but quite a few of them had to travel farther to get to it. To date, the old factory hadn’t acquired a new owner, but the residents were optimistic. Tiraas was a city which could not expand in terms of territory, and was expanding economically at a rapid rate. A valuable piece of property like that surely couldn’t go unused for much longer.
The factory was dark, too, and boarded up. Toby had to go over a fence (not hugely challenging) and in through a window whose wooden covering had been knocked very deliberately ajar, working up a good head of steam the whole time. He knew Gabriel well enough to know that his repeated entreaties that afternoon were going in one ear and out the other. Perhaps he could intercept his friend and get him to go home… If not—Gabe could be impossibly stubborn, usually when he knew he was in the wrong—he could at least stay and keep an eye out, make sure he didn’t get into more trouble than he could cope with.
For the life of him, though, he couldn’t find this alleged Thieves’ Guild meeting. The whole place was dark and silent. More than he would have expected even if he hadn’t known of a “job” being done here tonight; there weren’t a lot of vagrants in Tiraas, but no city this size was free of them, and an abandoned space like this should have played host to no end of squatters. He passed no one, though.
Toby cut short his exploration of the disused factory floor when a small light bloomed in the clouded glass windows of an upstairs office. It was more like a little cell than a proper room, reached by a rickety old flight of stairs and positioned to loom above the floor where enchanters and drudges would have labored over DawnCo carriages. He crossed quickly and quietly to the steps, glancing around as he went. Still no thieves. Still no Gabriel.
They creaked, of course, and even shifted slightly under his weight. Toby climbed carefully, though, and the steps didn’t seem to be in danger of giving away. That would have been a humiliating end to this venture. The staircase terminated above in a small catwalk, which itself led directly to the door to the little office. That door was ajar.
He pushed it open, peering carefully inside. The place was empty, dusty. Even the furniture was gone. There was nothing but the lamp, set on the floor… And Raslin.
“Took your time,” the half-elf said with that knowing grin that always set Toby’s spine tingling.
“I…” Humiliatingly, he had to pause and gulp. “Where is everyone?”
“Well,” Raslin drawled, taking a step forward, “home safe in their little beds, I should think. I sent Gabriel a note at his place that the job was off.”
“Why is the job off?”
“Toby, Toby.” Raslin shook his head, still advancing. Toby held his ground, his hear thumping so hard he was certain it must be echoing in the rafters. “I’m sorry for jerking Gabe around like that, but really? There was never a job. Be honest, how else was I going to get you alone?”
Toby tried to swallow again; his throat was too dry. He took a step backward toward the door. When had he stepped so far into the room in the first place. “I…think…I should go.”
“You probably should,” Raslin agreed, still advancing. He was almost within arm’s reach now. “But you’re not going to.”
“Poor little monk. You won’t reach out for what you want, no matter how badly you want it.” And then he was there, close enough to touch. Touching. His hands on Toby’s shoulders, face drifting closer. “But you’ll always be there to pull Gabriel’s demonic butt out of the fire. This is for your own good, you know. Sometimes it takes a little manipulation to bring people out of their shells.”
“You can thank me later,” Raslin murmured, drawing him close.
Time stopped working; space was flexible. There was just warmth, intoxicating sensation. The half-elf’s lean body pressed against his, his own back shoved against the window, questing lips on his own. Raslin made encouraging little sounds; Toby found himself offering up his own.
Then he heard something that wasn’t either of them.
He jerked his head up, gasping for air and peering around. In an instant, all the heat rushed out of him, leaving him cold.
Gabriel stood in the doorway, open-mouthed.
“Oh,” Raslin said languidly. “Did I send that note? I meant to. Ah, well. Like I said…sooner or later.”
Sunrise over the city was beautiful, or at least it seemed like it should have been. Toby couldn’t remember seeing the sun actually come up. He didn’t exactly remember getting out of that factory, either, at least not with any clarity. Gabe had been blocking the only exit from the office… He must’ve gone past him. Pushed past? It was a blur. Toby didn’t particularly want to remember. He didn’t particularly want to think at all. Or to exist.
He’d be missed at the monastery soon, if he hadn’t been already. That should have worried him quite a bit. He found little energy to spare for it.
“There you are.”
Toby froze. Gabriel’s head had appeared over the edge of the roof, where the ladder connected. With a grunt, he tugged himself up, carefully lifting a covered basket and setting it down on the rooftop to finish clambering over, talking as he went. “There are exactly five places you go when you want to think, and you’re just lucky you’re only in the second one I checked. If I’d had to climb up onto all five bloody roofs before I found you, I’d have been downright cranky by the time I did.” Dusting himself off, he bent to pick up his basket again.
Toby swallowed, flexing his hands into fists at his sides. “Gabe…”
“Here.” Gabe crossed the roof in quick strides, not seeming to notice when Toby shied back. He plunked himself down to sit cross-legged and pulled back the cloth covering the basket; Toby barely registered the mouth-watering scent that suddenly wafted out. “Nice thing about being up at this completely stupid hour of the morning is you get first crack at the bakeries. Here, I managed to score some of those non-frosted apple raspberry turnovers you like so much. Yes, you do, don’t try to pretend you don’t. Can’t say I agree with your tastes, but I’ve seen you inhale them.” He held up a pastry, grinning. “…okay, and I’m not gonna be shy about eating my share. Dang, these actually smell a lot better when they’re this fresh.”
It was funny, what finally penetrated the fog that had been weighing down Toby’s thoughts. “I… Those are… How’d you afford this? Gabe, please tell me you didn’t steal these.”
“Nah,” Gabriel said, shrugging. “That might’ve been fun, but the last thing I need is a trip to jail. You just know I’d be caught the first time I ever tried to steal anything; that’s my luck. No, I had a little money tucked away. It’s no big deal.”
Toby looked down into the basket. He had two dozen of those turnovers in there at least; they weren’t cheap pastries. “A…a little? Gabe, are you… This had to have been your whole savings!”
Gabriel looked up at him, meeting his eyes for a moment, then dropped them to look out at the city skyline, shrugging again. “Yeah, well. I figured you’d need a little pick-me-up, after the night you’ve had. You’re worth it.”
Toby was horrified to find his eyes moistening. “Gabriel…”
“Don’t start gushing at me,” Gabe said irritably. “Sit your butt down and eat your breakfast before you faint and fall off the roof. They’ll totally say I murdered you.” He took an unnecessarily vigorous bite out of the one in his hand and began chomping defiantly.
Toby sat down beside him, reaching into the basket.
They’d had two each of the small turnovers before he could bring himself to speak. “I guess… I don’t know what to say. That’s not…how I would’ve wanted you to…”
“I’m sorry,” Gabriel interrupted, still looking out over the city.
“…you’re sorry? For what?”
“I guess I was kind of a… I mean, that was a surprise, you know? Standing there gaping like a fish was maybe not the nicest thing to do in that situation. Heck if I know what was, though,” he added with a chuckle.
Toby stared down at his hands in his lap. The crumbs clinging to his fingers were suddenly fascinating.
“Please don’t tell anyone.”
“Of course I won’t,” Gabriel said fiercely, turning to glare at him. “It’s nobody’s business! It’s not even mine. I’m just sorry I, y’know…found out. You obviously weren’t ready to talk about it yet. Though I guess we both know whose fault that was,” he added darkly.
Toby heaved a soft sigh. “That…he… Yeah, not one of my better judgment calls. I have no idea how I’m going to talk to the monks about this. If I even can.”
“How can they possibly have a problem?” Gabriel exclaimed. “I mean, come on! You know what the Izarites are always saying. ‘All love is good!’ And Ms. Avelea had a whole rant about this that one time, remember? Heck, Avei’s got a whole army of lesbos. This is the twelfth century!”
Toby shook his head slowly. “You remember Ms. Avelea having an unexpected vacation right after that rant?”
“…was that when that was? Stuff kinda runs together. I don’t pay much attention to teachers. You may have noticed.”
“I paid attention to that,” Toby said somberly. “That was the school administration making a gentle suggestion about what is and isn’t appropriate classroom material. Whatever the Avenists may think… There’s what the Empire thinks. What society thinks.” He stared at the horizon. “What the monks will think.”
“Are they not… I don’t really know Omnist doctrine about… Y’know, this.”
“It’s not about doctrine, it’s more about tradition.” Toby sighed again. “Omnu is the god of life, and agriculture. Y’know, fertility and stuff. The whole notion of sex is… It’s all about procreation. You grow up, you marry someone who can help you raise babies, and then you make some babies with them. Anything else is seen as…frivolous. At best. It’s not prohibited… But it wouldn’t be welcome.”
“Well, screw them,” Gabriel said with sudden ferocity. “Tobias Caine, you are the best human being I know. You’ve got more compassion than any six merely decent folks; you’ve basically kept me from getting beaten to death by our wonderful classmates just for existing, and don’t think I don’t know it. If the gods have a problem with you, then…then… Well, damn the gods! We are what they made us. Be what you are.”
Toby reflexively tried to warn him against blaspheming—a particularly dangerous thing for Gabriel—but couldn’t speak around the sudden lump in his throat. In all the years they’d been friends, despite all the disadvantages Gabriel faced, he had never once heard him complain about his lot. Gabe had never before expressed any resentment of the Pantheon.
Not on his own behalf.
“Still, though,” Gabe went on in a more moderate tone, then actually grinned. “Raslin? I mean, come on, man. The guy is a jerk. Please tell me you’re not actually surprised he’d pull a stunt like this.”
Toby grimaced. “I know. Believe me, I know.”
“Okay, you know how Ami Talaari is a mean, sneaky, backstabbing bully?”
“Um, yes? Speaking as one of her favorite targets, I have managed to notice that.”
“Uh huh. And you know how she’s pretty and has got the most amazing boobs of any girl in our year?”
“So if she offered to make out with you for hours, no strings attached… Would you turn that down?”
Gabriel blinked, twice, then his lips started to twitch with imperfectly repressed laughter. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I would never do such a thing.”
Toby gave him a look. “Gabe.”
“Oh, come on, we both know the truth. Just let me enjoy my high horse for a minute. How many times in our lives am I gonna be the one showing more sense and discretion?”
Toby had to laugh along with him. It was like a dam breaking; it all rushed out of him, and then they were both howling and doubling over, knocking the basket of pastries on its side.
“Okay, so, you do notice boobs, though, then?”
“Well, not the way you do, but… Those boobs? How could I not?”
At that, Gabriel actually fell over on his side, laughing so hard he could barely manage to breathe. It wasn’t more than a couple of moments before Toby was in similar straits.
It was as wild as the dawn, as warm as the sun, as healing as the divine light the priests of his order bestowed. Years of fear, anxiety and stress dissolved under the sheer force of laughter. It wasn’t even that funny… They just needed to get it out.
It was a long morning, spent talking, laughing and eating pastries until the sun was nearing its zenith, and eventually they both fell asleep on the rooftop—Toby too dark-skinned to burn, Gabriel basically un-burnable.
Anyway, the sun was Omnu. He relaxed back against the baking stone, in the company of the only two people he knew would never condemn him, more at peace than he had ever hoped to be.
Whatever came in the future, there would always be this.
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