|4|

Kaleth supposed in retrospect that he ought to have tested Issavan's spell somehow before plunging headlong into the lake's chilling depths. But, whether it be blind faith or the reckless foolhardiness that Issa was so fond of accusing him of, he trusted his brother's assurances completely, and it only occurred to him a minute or two down that, indeed, he had not yet felt even the faintest desire to breathe. Fortunately.

His body felt supplied, fresh, and capable as he swam. After the initial dive, the sharp, biting edge of the water's chill had quickly dulled, and now it was simply a familiar coolness on his skin, under his clothes and through his hair—everywhere.

The darkness, broken only by the piercing ribbons of unnatural light provided by Issavan's beacons, was disorienting certainly, and there was an instinctive, claustrophobic dread associated with simply the idea of there being surrounded on all sides. No oxygen available anywhere within swimming distance if something failed.

But Kaleth made himself think about other things. He distracted himself in order to tamper down the panic associated with dwelling on that thought too long, a panic which would surely happily take over if he let it. He wouldn't let it.

He thought about the way the light danced in the water—rippling and refracting—stunningly beautiful in an otherworldly way.

He thought about the way Issa's lips tasted under his mouth. About the sound he had made when Kaleth kissed him. He wondered what the rest of him tasted like—and what other sounds he might be able to drag from those lips.

He thought that he ought to have taken his boots off for better mobility before diving, but now, several minutes in at this point and well past the point of no return without ruining the hope for Issavan's spell to work successfully, it was far too late. He wondered why Issavan cared about having his innocence proven at all. It hadn't seemed to weigh particularly heavy on his brother's mind, but then, Issavan's mind was something far beyond the reach of Kaleth's comprehension.

For the most part, he'd stopped trying to figure his brother out long ago.

When he caught himself wondering how much time had passed, he started to count his strokes.

One…two…three

His hands cut powerfully through the water, and he knew he was making good progress, though the endlessness of the water in either direction made it more or less impossible to tell exactly how fast, given that he had no reference points. He knew he was catching up with the first stone he'd seen Issa throw, though, because that light was getting brighter beneath him, and the one above dimming out.

He felt a strange ripple of unease about what would happen when he passed the first one, but he needn't have worried. Apparently, Issa had thought farther ahead than he, as per usual, and had already tossed another in before he'd even woken, because when he caught up with the one closest to him, he could just spot the glint of another farther below.

He lost track of time. Lost count of his strokes. Lost every sense he had of up and down, left and right. Everything was simply black, and all purpose in his mind centered on moving towards the light.

Then, abruptly as the blackness had closed in over him on entering the lake, the water took on a different hue, lit with something other than Issavan's light stones: a shimmery, ethereal white glow, accented with winks of pale violet and the occasional deeper purple. The lake floor. As it finally came into view beneath him, Kaleth shivered—not with a chill, but with raw awe.

The water was so clear, from this view it looked as though he might have been flying if not for the sensation of cold and suspension of the lake around him. The lakebed looked as mystic as the entire clearing had the moment he'd stepped into it the prior evening: alive with winding, high reaching fresh water weeds, green as spring grass; schools of darting fish of all shades and sizes. And basked in the light of the very plant Issavan had described impeccably.

As Kaleth progressed down, a surreal lull edged in on him. A calm he hadn't known since long before dipping beneath the surface, and he felt impossibly safe. Safer perhaps, than he ever had in his life, even, as though nothing could hurt him here. When he reached the lake's floor, hovering in lazy suspension over the plant he came to fetch, he blinked hazily at it, not immediately reaching for it, though a part of him knew he ought to.

He could simply stay here, he thought. Rest his eyes, at least. Sleep in this place of peace where nothing would touch him. Dazedly, he stretched a hand out, drawing his fingers along the edge of the phosphorescent—or was the glow simply magic?—plant. What was his mission again?

'Will you help me?'

Issavan.

Issavan needed this, Kaleth thought. Frowning abruptly, he shook himself from his daze like shedding an unnatural husk of a skin, and quickly, before his thoughts had a chance to cloud up again, he snatched up the plant before him. After plucking it, he shoved off from the lakebed and started for the surface. No time left now for dawdling.

Perhaps, he thought as he swam, he was simply imagining that holding the plant made him drowsy, weighing down his legs as though filling his muscles with sand and sticking his joints with maple syrup. The trip down had simply tired him; that was all. It made sense. Didn't it?

When he broke to the surface, it felt like being yanked from a dream.

The chill air slapped him first, biting like a thousand tiny pairs of pinchers at his freshly bared wet flesh. It stung on the way down too, each heave piercing the warm inner walls of his throat as he gulped down air. And, for all his grace underwater, here at the tail end of his journey he lost all sense of poise. In his rush to make it out of the accursed lake and safely ashore, his hands splashed messily at the surface of the water, moving as might a startled hound tossed into a cold pool.

Staggering up upon reaching the bank—his prize dutifully clutched in his right hand—Kaleth felt his likeness to such a canine increase. He wondered, as his eyes scanned the grassy enclosure and tree line for any sign of his wayward brother, if he did indeed look much like a wet dog: clinging to the game it eagerly waited to present to its master. As no sign of him appeared, that cynicism increased, his lips pursing to a thin line and an uncalled for panic edging up the base of his throat.

Had he taken too long? Had he misunderstood? Had Issa abandoned him here? Or perhaps something had caught up with them? Hurt him?

Seconds before his spark of unease bloomed into full panic, Issavan's slim form materialized from amongst the trees. A splotch of ethereal white against the dark. Kaleth's teeth grit at the same time his shoulders relaxed.

"Issa-" Half bark, half growl.

"Ah, good," Issavan cut in. "I wondered briefly if you wouldn't make it."

Kaleth wondered whether or not to be offended that Issavan made it sound like a comment on the probability of a coming rainstorm. Issa spoke again before he reached a decision.

"Well?" he prompted, holding out a hand and gesturing expectantly. Kaleth handed over the fruit of his efforts, and noted with curiosity that Issavan took the plant only after first wrapping a thin film over it, as if to shield his fingers from actually touching it.

"Is it poisonous?" Kaleth asked belatedly, rubbing his wet palm, stiff from cold, against his unfortunately also wet trouser leg.

"Not to you," Issavan answered, ever unhelpful.

Irritable and starting to shiver now from cold, Kaleth watched his brother's retreating back with a tight-lipped glower as Issa headed for the tent. Kaleth blinked. Tent? He must have set it up from Kaleth's supplies during his swim—or, had it been set up already when Kaleth originally came to from his induced sleep?

Brain still foggy from both his bone-numbing trip to the lake bed and perhaps some lingering effects of whatever drugs Issa put him under with the afternoon before, Kaleth gave up on thinking. Instead, he chose the simpler route and trailed his brother. Though Issavan tossed him a brief frown upon seeing him enter the tent sopping wet, he said nothing.

"When I was down there," Kaleth said, wanting to move his tongue to stave off the cold, "I grew drowsy near the bottom. Was that because of this…plant?" He gestured unnecessarily towards said plant with his question.

Issavan kept his back turned, preoccupied with some form of prep work. With the quick, deft precision of a seasoned herbalist, he slit the fungus up into thin strips, wrapped each in a fold of paper, and then bottled them in a single jar. He moved delicately, ever sure not to let his fingers touch the skin of the plant. "You didn't drink the water did you?" he asked at last, long after Kaleth grew accustomed to the silence.

"No," Kaleth answered. Then, he frowned again. "Why? I thought this was the plant that would have healed me, if you hadn't been able to use your…" Eyebrows pinching tighter together, he slogged out of his boots, a wet squelching sound cutting into the space between his words, "…whatever it is…that you use…" After finishing with those, he moved on to work off the rest of his soaked attire. His numb fingers worked stiff but persistent over wet laces, slippery buttons, and chilled metallic buckles.

Issavan paid no mind to his disrobing. At least, no mind until Kaleth finished, knelt behind his sitting brother's back, and laid a cool hand on his shoulder just to the side of his neck. Then, Issavan tensed immediately.

"Kaleth-"

"Mm?" Ignoring the sharp hiss of his name, Kaleth leaned in. Holding his hand still, he nudged just close enough to touch his nose to the opposite side of Issavan's neck. A cord of rigid tension lifted under his ministrations, and Issa's fingers jerked to a standstill mid-cut.

"Kaleth…" His body still stiff as a cat faced with the prospect of a long, wet bath, Issavan at least sounded more in control of his voice now, "…you're wet."

"And cold," Kaleth said helpfully. Shutting his eyes, he leaned in the fraction more it took to press his lips to that cord of tension. Issavan's hair smelled of the forest and a wild wind, and he made the smallest, most sharp and brittle sound when Kaleth's lips found their mark. It fed a spark under Kaleth's pulse. "You're warm, though," Kaleth murmured, never quite lifting his mouth from Issa's skin. "And dry."

Issavan shuddered. "I'm not…" He swallowed, "…done. Yet. Let me finish…" The last words came out in a whisper, as though it were Issavan entreating Kaleth for once. And Kaleth in control.

Kaleth smiled. Because he could, he slid his hand down from Issa's shoulder. Devoting two hands to the task, it took little time to work loose his brother's shirt and vest. Issavan made no move to stop him. When Kaleth reached his goal, slipping easily under the hem of his brother's clothes, Issa's only reaction was to give another brief, sharp hiss at the chilled touch.

"I'm not holding your hands," Kaleth said. To his amusement, this of all things seemed to stoke a seed of embarrassment in Issa, and as Kaleth watched, Issavan's cheeks warmed into a rare rosy pink.

After that, Issa's hands moved again. Slowly—as though with grim persistence—he went back to cutting, his slices stubbornly neat and even despite the shivers rippling along his skin under Kaleth's touch. Kaleth read that as invitation enough and proceeded without further pause.

If Issavan saw fit to drag him out into the depths of the forest, Kaleth reasoned—to lead him on in a wild chase night after night, never telling of his plans, poisoning him, tricking him, using him, taunting him at every turn—then surely, taking his fill of Issavan in this manner now was well within his rights. Issavan had invited this attention. Even so, part of Kaleth still shirked at the thought. No matter how Issavan denied it, Kaleth knew they would always be brothers. And Kaleth wanted things a brother should never want of his kin.

However, in many ways Kaleth had already crossed many metaphorical lines in the sand. He had looked when Issa taunted, wanted when Issa teased, allowed Issa to kiss him—kissed Issa of his own initiative. For all his attempts in earlier years to change—and when that failed, hide at all costs—the nature of his love for his brother, it seemed Issavan had seen through Kaleth's guise as instinctively as a hawk spots fish in a pristine stream. Thus, it struck him as foolish to attempt any further denials now.

"You have the patience of a minnow," Issavan said, the chastisement barely a murmur as he finished with the last of his packaging.

Kaleth hummed in answer. Without waiting for Issa to move, he took advantage of his brother's suddenly unburdened hands and slid his own up to catch them, circling Issa's wrists in a loose imitation of cuffs. Grazing his thumbs along the soft inside skin there, he savored the silent tremor his touch induced.

"Kaleth–"

"You're finished," Kaleth said. He nipped the lobe of his brother's ear, a gentle tug. "Come to bed."

Issavan looked lovely with a flush on his cheeks. It added a rarely seen tint of color to his otherwise ghostly pallid complexion, and betrayed an equally rare show of emotion besides. Looking on him, though, it occurred to Kaleth to wonder for the first time how often Issavan got up to such ventures as this at all—if ever?

No, he thought immediately after. Surely even Issavan, who talked as though he knew everything about everything, would not be so casual in his invitations if he had no previous experience in this regard. And yet, before Kaleth could censor his words, the question tumbled from his lips. "Have you done this before?"

Issavan blinked.

Whatever abashment he might have shown faded, and he tossed Kaleth a single sidelong glance over his shoulder. Then, his puzzlement disappeared in favor of a startled laugh. Kaleth watched as a far more familiar expression settled into place—a smug slit of a smile delivered from beneath barely lowered lashes which managed to somehow be simultaneously belittling and beguiling.

"Perhaps not," Issavan answered. "Would you like that?"

His hands went to work on his shirt front. Deft fingers skipped over laces and buttons, finishing the job Kaleth started, and with one fluid shrug, Issa slipped the cloth from his shoulders. Kaleth's pulse gave a startled hop. He curbed the urge to reach out—trail his fingers down the long, smooth expanse of Issa's bared back.

"Perhaps I've never let anyone touch me," Issa went on. "Never sought anyone out, never let the temptation faze me…" He shifted. The brief, efficient motion fitted him into Kaleth, the unmarred length of his naked back pressed flat and warm to Kaleth's bare chest. Before Kaleth could do more than settle his palms on Issa's hips, Issa dropped his head back. Resting it against Kaleth's shoulder and then leaning in, Issavan pressed his next words into the curve of Kaleth's throat. "Perhaps I saved myself specifically for you, big brother…what do you think?"

Kaleth managed a single dry swallow coupled with a noise he didn't intend to make.

Somehow—that is to say, by virtue of Kaleth's forcibly relocating them—they made it to the bedding a few short feet away. Issavan—freshly pressed into the furs via Kaleth's new looming hold on him and arms raised, pinned, and half-bent over his head—lifted his eyebrows. When he opened his mouth, Kaleth kissed him.

It thrilled Kaleth that Issavan's lips parted so readily. Thrilled him that Issa's tongue licked out to meet him; that Issa's fingers clenched; that the muscles in his wrists tightened under Kaleth's hold on them as their mouths tangled. To assure that Issa didn't draw the wrong conclusion though and take him for a complete fool, Kaleth spoke in the first moment they drew apart.

"I think," he said and pressed an open, tasting kiss beneath Issavan's ear, "that you are a beautiful liar."