A Court for Owls

 

And thorns shall come up in her palaces,

nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof:

and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls.

Isaiah 34 verse 13

 

Another day. Another once-inhabited, now uninhabited planet. Another ruined city.

It’s getting to be routine, Matt Harrington thinks, finding the ruins of dead civilisations. There’s no knowing who—or what—had swept through this part of the galaxy, destroying everything in their path. Probably not the Devourers who had destroyed Earth, not this far from the quadrant where their dead homeworld probably still smokes and steams and smells of burnt meat. Some other metaphorical plague and pestilence raged here, laying waste to what had once been a pretty little city sitting amongst gently-sloping hills.

“Another one.” Thom Aronsson echoes Matt’s thoughts. “We have a crappy track record for finding live people to trade with. The P’Nat’R were the exception.”

Matt can only nod. They had all mourned the necessity of leaving the P’Nat’R behind and move on. They’d found a haven there to rest and recoup after their losses.

On Thom’s other side, Li Liang snorts with lady-like delicacy. Her disdain for untidy apostrophes and random capital letters is well known, although she admits to conquering her prejudices and liking the P’Nat’R themselves. It’s their sloppy orthography she objects to. She cranes her neck to see around Thom, and rolls her eyes at Matt.

He grins back, but he can’t keep the grin going for long. This place is depressing. A helluva contrast to the welcome they’d had from the P’Nat’R two star systems back. “Looks like they’re long gone, both the victors and the vanquished.”

Liang’s mouth turns down at the corners. “I wonder if we’d be able to tell which is which.”

Matt thinks the dead city can probably tell. The city of the victors won’t be this desolate.

The city was once a pleasant place with wide avenues and solid, attractive buildings built from golden stone. Even decaying and half-destroyed, it’s very peaceful under the slanting afternoon sun.

Liang had landed the shuttle on one of the encircling hills, bringing it down in a big square lined with blank-walled buildings. At the end nearest the city centre stands a dilapidated open-sided little structure. Its cupola, cracked and broken, is set on graceful pillars, covering the remains of an urn. A memorial, or something? Matt leans against it while he scans the city below. The stone is warm against his shoulder.

The city is a ruin, but it still stands. Ruined, changed, and desolate, but still recognisably a city. There’s a parable there for him if he chooses to read it.

Kit speaks up, breaking into Matt’s peace. But then, that’s his special talent. “Are we going down there?”

Well, that was why they were there, after all, to see what might be salvageable, what technology or knowledge they could scavenge. They were getting to be pretty good scavengers; the Alexander’s carrion crows. Matt bites back a sigh. They have a job to do and it’s time to stop staring at synonyms for his own futile existence and get on with it.

“Yes.” Matt turns from his contemplation of the dead city to a contemplation of the landing party here with him. His gaze slides away from Kit, the familiar pain thudding in his left temple, stabbing down his neck and stiffening his shoulders. He rubs the back of his neck to ease the tension. The pain isn’t as sharp as usual. More of a dull ache, today. Dull ache days aren’t so bad. More bearable. “Split up into pairs.”

“We need to split up Liang and Alice,” Kit says, mouth turning up in one of his trademark grins. “I couldn’t face turning a corner down there and see what I saw in the launch bay last night. Not again. Horrible, it was.”

Liang’s expression stays bland, but a blush blossoms in the skin over her cheekbones. Her eyes narrow with what Matt thinks is anger and mortification. But he may be projecting, there.

“Kit,” Thom says, frowning.

Alice, Liang’s co-pilot and lover, is easier to provoke. “Kit, you promised you’d behave.”

“Did I? That doesn’t sound like something I’d do. Are you sure?”

“Very sure.” And Alice sounds like her teeth are gritting so hard they’d break. “You promised you’d leave it alone.”

“He doesn’t keep promises,” Matt says. He has to stop and take a breath to force the bitter anger from his voice before people wonder at it and look to see what causes it. So many people close their eyes, wilfully, to how Kit is. He had himself. He nods when Thom puts a hand on his arm, and adds, more lightly, “You should try it, Kit. It builds character.”

Kit just laughs, but the glance he sends Matt shows he’s heard the sharpness in Matt’s tone. “Trouble is, I don’t want my character built.”

And isn’t that the truth! Kit Calvert to the life.

“Well, there’s a surprise.” Matt turns away. Beside him, Thom shakes his head—sympathy? warning? too late for either—and hands Matt the field glasses. Thom’s hand is warm where it brushes Matt’s. Matt lifts the glasses to his eyes. Where once his eyes might have burned and stung, now he takes comfort from Thom’s solid, undemanding companionship and concentrates on the city, unimpeded.

Trouble is, most people don’t want Kit’s character built any more than Kit does. They like him the way he is. They’re all charmed. What was it Thom had called Kit at that P’Nat’R Winterlight ceremony? The sun they all follow like a set of mindless sunflowers, turning their faces to bask in Kit’s attention. They all get burned, singed around the edges. Most of them don’t even notice, the idiots. Too keen on encouraging him.

The way that Lieutenant Green did now. “Poor Kit. Catching them must have scarred you for life.”

“It was terrible. If it had been you, you’d be demanding financial compensation too.”

“Shut it, Kit,” Liang says, tone flat. “You aren’t nearly as funny as you think you are.”

Matt lowers the field-glasses and turns to her, surprised. People just don’t interrupt Kit when he’s in full flow. Kit’s cheeks are reddening, but Liang turns her back on him. Matt’s impressed. He would quite like to turn his back, himself.

“No?” Kit says, softly.

Liang spares him a glance. “It’s sad, really. You’re a one-tune fiddle.”

“Ah,” Kit says. “But I never played my tune with you.”

Liang laughs then, a bright ringing sound fracturing the silence of the ruins. “Just as well. I’d snap your string if you tried.” She looks him up and down. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re tone deaf.”

Kit gapes. Everyone gapes. Matt, not wanting to acknowledge the little glow of satisfaction he feels, steps in before Kit can recover.

“That’s enough. This is a survey mission, not kindergarten. Alice, back to the shuttle and break out the gear, please. Kit, you and Greenie go and check out the other side of the square. Make sure we aren’t missing anything significant back there if we head down into the city.” He snaps into Major-mode when Kit stays to stare at Liang. “Now! That was an order.”

Liang smirks. Kit gives Matt one glowering glance, his face red, and stamps away with Greenie.

Thom reaches for Liang’s hand. He kisses it with an ostentatious flourish. “Oh, that was nice. Long overdue.”

“He doesn’t often get slapped down like that,” Matt says. “I think he was in shock.”

Liang’s face is set and cold. “He’ll be in the Medical Unit when I’ve finished with him. Who does he think he is?”

“He’s always been the same, Liang. I don’t think it’s meant to be malicious.”

Thom nods. “No. But, if a few more people slapped him down like that, he’d be the better for it.”

“Maybe. But it won’t happen. People like him too much the way he is. He won’t change.” Matt hunches a shoulder. “If anything, he’s… I was going to say ‘worse’, but he’s just more intensely Kit-ish these days. More determined not to change, even after everything that’s happened. As if he won’t let it touch him.”

“And that’s his problem, isn’t it? Kit’s careless about everything. But the rest of us want more than that, and we’ll just have to leave him behind.” Thom bestows another kiss on Liang’s hand and releases it.

Matt thinks Thom understands Kit pretty well. “Maybe that’s why he’s doubling down. Maybe it’s worrying him.”

Liang smiles. “I can bear the thought of Kit being worried. I’m going to find Alice.” She pauses, giving Matt a considering look. “You should do that. You should find someone.” She looks at Thom, and her smile broadens. “Someone who keeps his promises.”

“Trouble is, I thought I had.”

“Oh, Matt. You didn’t look in the right place.” She shakes her head then, and walks away, following Alice to the shuttle. No doubt she’ll squeeze a few minutes out of their exploration prep time to take Alice to a quiet corner and squeeze her. She and Alice were strong and tight, and Matt envied them.

Thom put a hand on Matt’s arm. He’s close, the way he has been ever since the Kit fiasco. He’s a good friend if all too prone to speaking truth. “You should have known better. You should have known Kit didn’t want to be found. Never has done, never will.”

 

 

Matt absolutely should have known better. He does know better.

Thom and Liang might be a little too fond of saying ‘I told you so’, but God knows they’re right. Matt knows how Kit operates. Over the years he’s watched dozens of moths fluttering around Kit’s candle flame, melting their wings like Icarus.

He was as willfully blind as everyone else, dazzled by Kit’s charm. He’d known the risk. He can’t remember now who Kit had been seeing before him, but ‘She wants too much,’ Kit had said that first night, the night he’d charmed and dazzled Matt, his kisses ghosting down the side of Matt’s jaw. She had wanted too much when all Kit ever wants was to have fun.

All he ever wants.

Kit had had so many before Matt. Nothing ever lasts, because Kit doesn’t take it, or them, seriously. ‘Oh, it was a lot of fun and the sex was amazing,’ Kit said, when he was moving on. Matt still resents that casual kindness more than the desertion itself. It wasn’t malicious, but it was Kit’s brand of carelessness. It had stung like fury.

It still did.

 

 

The others are already drifting down the hillside to the city streets below. Greenie and Alice start down the path, heads bent over hand-held scanners, taking point. Thom and Liang follow. Which leaves Kit for Matt.

Except not really.

He watches Kit come back across the square towards him. Kit looks sulky, a child whose toys have been taken away.

Kit hands him a backpack. “Can no one take a joke these days? I don’t understand what’s got into Liang. Or Thom, for that matter.”

Matt considers him. He feels a sudden stirring of something. Not the anger and bitterness that have been his companions recently. Maybe it’s pity at how stunted Kit really is. “I know you don’t. I don’t think you ever will.”

“Are you mad with me as well?”

Matt takes a minute to answer. “Disappointed, maybe. But no… I’m mad with myself. You didn’t make me any promises.”

“You didn’t ask me to.”

“No. No, I didn’t, did I?” Matt huffs out a little laugh. “I suppose I was anticipating the disappointment there and saved my breath.”

No promises made or asked for. Just fun. And it was fun, while it lasted. The sex had been amazing. It isn’t Kit’s fault that Matt had wanted more. Wants more. And there it is, all his folly laid out: the need for something unattainable, to have Kit love him. Not just want him, lust after him, desire him—but love him.

It will never happen. Not with Kit. He knows it now, and he’s known it all along. It isn’t really Kit’s fault.

Kit’s frowning. “I thought you understood.”

“I did. Do, I mean. Now.” Matt takes a deep breath and looks at the tumbled mass of buildings, seeing in a ruined city the symbol of what Kit had done… No. That’s unfair. What Matt has allowed him to do. “I suppose I thought it had to be different this time around. We’ve been friends for so long. I didn’t think it would be like all the others.”

“There was always something with you. Something I wanted.” Kit shrugs.

“Well, you got it.”

Kit grimaces. “You make it sound pretty cold. I don’t do strings. You know that. But I don’t want it to change things.”

Matt stares at him. “Well, that’s pretty stupid. Of course it’ll change things. It already has.”

“I don’t want you mad at me. Like you said, we’ve been friends for a long time.”

Matt tells himself that love is just a state of mind. “Yeah. A long time.” He lets himself put a hand on Kit’s shoulder. Briefly. “I just don’t like you very much right now. I’ll get over it.”

He’ll get over this. He’s got over worse.

He curls his fingers into a fist, to ease the tension, and lets them relax again. He’ll get over it, even if he still has moments when he’s as ruinous and wrecked as the city, with Kit cast as the metaphorical plague and pestilence. There’s no inoculation against Kit, just exposure to the disease to build up your immune system. He wonders if he’ll get to the point where he can watch the contagion pass on to someone else and not feel the fever for himself.

He thinks he might. He’s not a total ruin. There may even have been some rebuilding since. Certainly some shoring up of teetering foundations. He’ll endure.

He shoulders the pack. “Let’s go. We have a city to explore.”

“It’s not likely we’ll find much,” Kit says. “We never do.”

Matt glances at him, at the way his discontented mouth turns down. For the first time in weeks, he doesn’t want to kiss it until it smiles under his lips.

“Oh I don’t know,” he says. “It’s not always what you find, but what you decide to keep.”

There’s an entire city down there to map out and explore, things to be learned. There are things to be found, and some he’ll keep and some he’ll leave behind. He feels a sudden kinship to the city. It might be a ruin, but it’s still there. It endures.

He starts down the steep path, a silent Kit a step or two behind him. Ahead of him, Thom turns and stops, says something to Liang, and, while she goes on ahead to join Alice and Greenie, he waits for Matt.

And Matt’s all right with that. He joins Thom, and Thom falls in beside him, leaving Kit to follow. Matt smiles then, because Thom isn’t a candle flame seeking to burn his wings. Thom’s calm and quiet, a quencher of flames in favour of steady heat.

Matt lets the smile grow. He really is all right with that.

 

 

 

 

~end~

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