Up above the Hot Country, the sky seems to narrow like a dying man's eye, dimming; Priest Vallon sees the night coming on, at long last—blessed night, into which all things must eventually pass, whether they will or no. But Bill the Butcher, contrary Yankee bastard that he is, will be having none of that.
Oh, and it's true how they're not "together" anymore, granted, which is a tale both hard to tell and harder still to contemplate. But each time the Butcher brushes by Vallon, it's like a sudden, secret heat—a bright, sharp shock all through him, from his tenderest parts on up, to suddenly //know// just where Bill's been in him, what they've done together. The liberties he's let him take, and given in return, beneath that too-thin cotton sheet on the bed they used to share.
"How come you get to hold yourself so high and mighty, anyroads?" Bill
calls out, in challenge, across the fresh fall of rain-hot mud between
'em. "What've I done that you never, Priest? Or vice versa."
"On the latter? Felt any shred of shame or regret over a stitch of it. Or sorrow for a single livin' creature either, savin' yourself—sure, your 'sympathy' is the same kind would have seen men hung to save their souls in Salem, when your forefathers reached the very height of their witch-hunting Lutheran error."
Sees the Nativist shake his battle-capped head in disgust and feels an odd, brief pleasure to know Bill don't have even the least idea what he's talking about. Maintaining, at last--
"You find the taste'a my mercy so galling, might be you should stop turning the other cheek, then—ya rancorious Mick shitbird!"
The Priest nods, evenly. "Maybe so. But then again..."
...and smiles in that all-forgiving way he's come to know annoys Bill most, 'specially when it's directed full at him...
"...might be I do it to show //you// how it's done."
A huff, followed by a quick-smart heel-toe spin, and Bill's away just
as the longhouse horn sounds the charge: Falling headlong into that lope
and strut, a triangle-bladed knife suddenly upright in either hand like
arcane sorcery. He can move careful enough when he thinks of it, God knows,
ever-mindful of his vaunted dignity. But get him riled, and all that peels
away; he'll come for your throat like a terrier, spitting, snarling. Breathing
These days, he most-times attacks Priest from behind in one hard rush, toppling him like lumber so's they go down fighting. Because he knows that if he comes at him from the front Priest will just switch to his one reliable trick, that of gracefully—and infuriatingly—giving in, immediately.
Always striving for a repeat of that moment they both still recall so well: That first strike, then that last. The blood leaping up between them. It's what lies—
—what //used// to lie—
—at the red heart of every kiss.
On the field, the Butcher still moves like a shark, passing back and
forth in silent, circular sweeps—the same way a scythe swings at harvest-time,
with just as much skill and economy. Weaving in and out. Cutting his bloody
swathe. While Vallon watches with half an eye—the other occupied, momentarily,
with the task of tugging his broadsword from some hapless young opponent's
guts—as he sends yet another one down with his cords cut, then leans over
him, poised to deliver the "killing stroke": So neat, so clean, so useless.
It's like he knows all that now, and the pity of it stings at the Priest's heart like vitriol.
Down here, he's come to understand, causes don't matter—they prove nothing.
Just fuel for the fire. A series of joyless flourishes, reduced to ritual.
He can see it starting to grind on the Butcher, at long last, but it's
not the victory he once assumed it would be: A painful spectacle, a foul
defeat. To witness Bill Cutting start not to //care//...
It's like a dragon's flame, going out. A second death in progress.
//My poor William...//
But: No. Not //mine//, damn him. Not—
//The Priest and me...was only faith divided us,// Bill'd once liked to say—and wasn't that nothing but the bitter truth, in the end.
Nights of back-and-forth turned days, turned days-and-nights, hammer and tongs on Satan's own anvil; the hourly natter and clash of two equally narrow minds, their true disparity no longer quite mitigated—or ameliorated, here and there—by an occasional soothing coil of body on body.
And it's no revelation, not as such; there's never been nothing gentle with the Butcher, nothing soft or sweet. The Priest's had to hold him down, hold him still, pin him flat with all his considerable strength for fear of further injury just to kiss him, sometimes...for even in passion's grip, Bill's apt to take any attempt at comfort as nothing but another species of insult.
Yet then again: Easy's never been the point of the venture, has it? For if easy was all either of 'em wanted, they could've just let themselves be pulled down without even a show of fight; the Priest could've met Bill's usual desperate half-bite with one of his own halfway, tongues locking fast and hot, only to struggle a while 'till they decided who was best qualified to fit inside whom. Then lie together in the cooling bed afterwards, close-locked, and watch the stars go out above them, one by one by one.
Keep all these endless arguments locked up fast where none of the other dead brawlers can overhear 'em, where even if things come to blows, there's always at least the possibility of a mutually—
Sometimes, though...sometimes mere //wanting//'s simply not good enough either to start a fight or stop a mouth, no matter how much it seems as though it should be. Not nearly.
So: "Preach, preach, preach, you house-sized bag of wind," Bill'd thrown back at him that last time, dead center, like he was using the Priest for knife-practice. "Jaw the whole damn God-Book at me, you take a mind to—Genesis to Eccleisiates, and all in between. You think just 'cause I ain't read them poesetical words in high Church Latin, I don't know my own place in it? I've done His work my entire life."
"Oh, I'm sure you think so—but think on further, Butcher: Consider your ways, and His. Was it really Christ you were servin', each time you cursed the Irish for livin' or prised the tripe from some gangster? For the Devil is a busy bishop in his own diocese, or so they say."
"Yeah? Well, don't go fittin' me for horns just as yet." Adding, with a fresh sneer, one lip-curl away from full-out scowl: "You think you're better'n me; always did."
Priest remembers sighing at that, windily. Replying—
"But that was my mistake, wasn't it? For obviously we're naught but sinners both, sinners in every particular. Only difference is—"
"Only difference //is//, I OWN //my// sins."
"Own 'em? You //revel// in 'em."
"Just 'cause I don't bend the knee to none but the Almighty his ownself..."
"//You// don't bend the knee at all, not even in your own heart. And that's the hard, sad pity of it."
"You think you and that pointy-hat king of yours invented God, that it? My faith is just as pure as yours, for all I don't need no Pope to tell me what'll keep me out'a Heaven. My Christ ain't the same as your Christ, that the way you see it?"
"No more'n he is, from what I've gleaned. //My// God is a loving, forgiving God—"
"Yeah, and I'm Dagger John Hughes. You and me, Priest, we worship the exact same thing: What does for you, when you can't for yourself. Steel in our hand and a buckler 'gainst our enemies."
(...including each other.)
Bill: "What I meant is, I never needed no intercessionary in a gold robe to tell the Lord Almighty what it was I meant when I was 'bout it; I can do that my ownself, and live with what follows." A pause. "And you, you aimed to save my soul, that 'bout the size of it? Or was it you knew I was damned from birth already, so there ain't no stain to be got from playing with what's soiled so bone-deep...not even for a Priest?"
An impatient sigh. "Don't talk like some idiot boy..."
Oh, but //that// was an error. For there once was a time the Priest //was// older, if no wiser—and he knew, on some level, how Bill was right to accuse him of still seeing it as such: Him the dog and Bill the pup, yapping always at his heels.
"You dream you're my elder, by any sense of reckoning? I outlived //you// near twenty years, by last count—"
"You shut your damn mouth!"
Letting fly at the same time and pinning Priest's wrist to the sweating
longhouse wall with a knife through the sleeve, just nicking the skin beneath.
While snarling: "Who is it you think you //are// to me in exactitude, ya
piss-damnable Paddy fuck? My own dead Pa, to raise your hand when I answer
back? Don't you //never// do that again, no-wise, or—"
To which the Priest just grabbed him about the throat with his free hand and rammed him back against the nearest table, dipping down to kiss him so hard Bill's lip split wide open.
Felt Bill first half-melt at the touch of it, then freeze solid in the very midst, knowing in his guts how all eyes must be on 'em; no polite pretense here, not any longer. Never a chance of unringing this bell once more, with every man jack (and moll) in reach gaping wide at the sight of their "invisible" bond made sudden, shocking flesh.
But: "Everyone already knows, Bill," Priest had found himself murmuring, breath-quiet, in the Butcher's reddening ear. "//Everyone//. Could've bussed you at the table's head and no one'd care. Hell, I could lay you down in the middle of the field outside, and not one of 'em would bat an eye."
Caught one eye's sidelong, narrowed gleam in return—the one beneath Bill's sole unbroken brow, turned first glass and then flesh, now cold and slick like glass once more: Reflective, unforgiving. And thinking, even as the full weight of his own stupidity fell on him like a sickness:
//Oh, yeh mad thing, glorious monster, fractious child! Sure, you'll
never change at all, not 'less yeh're made to.//
Ah, and there's the rub, right there. Isn't it?
Bill rose, carefully—collected what was left of his dignity, cocking his head to one side like a hawk considering where best to swoop, and baring his full complement of metal teeth as he did so. Then straightened his spine so far they were almost nose to nose and spat blood on the floor between 'em like an additional curse, close enough for the Priest to step in.
"Stay away from me from now on, you know what's best for ya," he warned him, dead quiet. And moved off, turning his back—
No way of knowing that, though. Not here.
Doesn't take too long for Monk McGinn to come sniffing around, after that—"like a dog at the dumpings", as Bill would say. Though Priest tries his level best not to frame the same observation, if only on general principle.
“Trouble in Paradise, Vallon?” He inquires, casting a glance back westwards, the direction Bill most-often appears from. Then adds a smiling headshake at his own maladroitness, once he knows he’s safe: More’n just a slight bit off on the nomenclature, might be. But it’s hardly as though they don’t both know what he’s getting at.
For even sparing the inherent sin and blaphemy of such a coupling, there’s no way the Priest—or anyone else, for that matter—could ever have though it was made to last, between ‘em. Not with he and Bill being so antithetical to their very cores; chalk and cheese, face and fist, lime and flesh. Their every embrace but a tussle reduced to parts, played out of sequence. A betrayal of their most basic instincts, and all the more pleasurable for it—albeit a perverse and dreadful pleasure, surely the sort one could only find in Hell…
//But IS this Hell?// The Priest wonders, as he seems to find himself doing every other day, sometimes every other minute. And wonders, a moment later—
(again, a daily, minute-ly occurrence)
—why it is, for the love of sweet Jesus Christ Almighty, that being //almost sure// he knows the answer isn’t ever enough to bloody well stop him from asking.
Left to his own devices, Bill's sunk back to where he must’ve been right before he died—become the same thug dandy he once was, only more so. The battle-suit’s discarded, thrown over in favor of his old checked trousers and highwater swallowtail coats; he curls his moustache-points to Devil’s horns and strikes a pose by the longhouse door, that sky-scraping hat of his worn nonchalantly high. Throws the occasional knife now and then, but only to impress whatever gal he’s got his eye—
(make that //eyes//)
Doesn't fight, though—not any more. Nothing left to fight over, the Priest supposes, whenever he forgets to stop himself from doing so…or maybe just nothing that takes his fancy.
Vallon observes him from a distance, sometimes thinking he catches Bill doing much the same, in reverse. And as whatever passes for time here ekes by, he can feel himself start to ache once more, missing the Butcher beside him: To prowl the field arm to arm, weapons out; to back him up, in skirmish or in revelry; to argue with, to question, to debate. They're two of the oldest Hot Country residents still left, the only ones who remember each other's quarrel, or the pathetically slight difference of faith they both died for. If they don’t stand together, where can either of them have—or find—to stand?
That night, at the usual after-battle longhouse hoy, Priest glances up from his mead to catch sight—through a fluttering curtain—of Bill hard at it with one of the shield-maidens, bending her over a handy cask in a nook nearby, fingers deep in her like she's some pocket he's picking with haphazard, unpractised skill. Then haul them out to lick them one by one, pause and give him a sticky cannibal smile over her shoulder, like: //See? Ain't all of us so concerned on God's will that we'll let the immediate pass us by—//
So shameless, and why not? For by his own boast, in Satan’s Circus, this sort of tabletop jouncing was a nightly sight. Which leaves it Priest’s turn to be flushed and uncomfortable, the Butcher’s cool glance like a skewer all through him, makeing him burn all the brighter.
//You love an audience, you circus-turn,// he thinks, too sodden—or proud—to turn away, not while Bill’s still looking. And then: //And me with my green eyes—jealous, by Jaysus! Just as ridiculous, if not all the more so...//
It pains him with its stink, same as any wound left far too long untreated. So he stamps off upstairs, drinks himself prone and falls to, muzzily—
—in "their" too-empty bed.
Dreams come quickly, hot and sticky, wrapped ‘round him like sheets; the Priest surfaces still clenched tight in them, only to find they’re suddenly cut from skin, not cotton. To find four sinewy limbs holding him still less with strength than with threat, sweat-burnished in the longhouse’s dim red light, while their owner stares down at him with that same maddening grin, wearing only his shirt: At least as drunk as he is if not more, though carrying it off with far more ease, far more //style//. As ever.
Staring down at him now, smile fading away—hotly, under fierce, lowered brows, his eyes narrowed like slits into some furnace of intention. Color shows high on those cheekbones, flushed and hectic; makes the Priest shiver and sweat just to see it in his turn, let alone to feel Bill's long reach feather the inside of his thighs, ruffling red hair. Or see the Butcher lean further still, then—his gaze never breaking—and dip until his moustache grazes along the Priest’s stomach. To bend in a way he shouldn’t be able to and lap at the very head of him, pull roughly with tongue and teeth alike, as though tasting something sweet and bitter and infinitely precious all at once...
//Oh God, your evil, evil mouth—//
Gasps out loud then, can’t help himself from doing so, which brings the grin anew, but wider. Not the least because there’s no way in all eternity to deny his response, not with the proof of it knocking like a hammer right where their stomachs touch in greeting.
"Thought you wanted to be shed of me," Bill says, sitting back; keeps his knees grimly tight on Priest’s hips the whole while, like he’s all set to ride an unbroke horse. And licks his lips, deliberate, the same way Judas sinned.
"Aye, so I did," the Priest concedes, breathless. Adding: "But only so long as I thought the same of you."
A nod. "Surmised as much. Seems we was both wrong on that count, though—don’t it?"
Those deft knifester’s hands running up and down, in and out like some Devil’s tapdance, playing him the same way that old man in the longhouse corner does his dulcimer…oh, and what’s to be done but lie there and take it, in the final summation? For Christ knows Bill does like to give pleasure almost as much as pain, or so the Priest's observed, on others—likes whatever gives him the most power to revel in either way, for good //or// ill.
Something about a big man down, and begging; it's purest magic, as both of ‘em have cause to know. But Priest'd rather pike out his own two eyes rather than voice what's in his heart, this endless pleading: //Finish me, finish it, FINISH, God damn all manner of contentious Yankee heretics to the unscalable depths of Dis everlasting...//
Which Bill understands full well, in all probability. Though all he has to say out loud about it, cucumber-cool even in this pit-hot circumstance, is—
"’Course…I could always withdraw, you find my attentions inconvenient. ‘Cause if there's something you want, Priest, you gotta say it straight out—or you ain't much like to get it, now, are ya?"
Priest gasps once more, reflexive. "What," he manages, "is it //you// want, William?"
Smartly: "More of this, first off. For all it’s a sin, or so I’ve been told more times’n I can count."
"Sure, and me as well. Do yeh care, overmuch?"
And: Only a groan for answer, with Bill's mouth finally swooping back down on his, hard—breath imbrued so far with alcohol it’s a fresh form of drunknness to swallow it, wax-tipped moustache scratching and tangling something fierce with his own. Priest gives up all hope of salvation under that insistent pressure, though it's hardly like he ever had much to begin with.
"Well," he says, at last. "If sin this is, you're my occasion."
Born to be, and the Priest his in turn—does it go that far back, providence or provenance, and Jesus, which word is which, anyhow? Which is it means what, again?
(Bill's own difficulty with language, infecting him. Making him want to cobble together new terms of his own, just to chart and define this slippery slope he's plunging down.)
Oh, and it’s damnation indeed—willful, deliberate, impossible to regret—to let himself roam one more time at will ‘cross that greyhound body, so slim and hard and scarred from constant combat; those overfine young Protestant lord's long bones, knit cheek-by-jowl with that haughty, frowning dustheap hooligan's glare. And something so //young// about him yet, still; the soft inner flesh of his lip like some piece of fruit the Priest can plant his teeth in, while his hands slip around for a hold through Bill's oil-slick soaplock mane. Exert his own (not inconsiderable) will to dominate, flip them both, and take his rightful place on top again…
He hears the Butcher give a little yowl as he does so, hips opening wishbone-wide so's Vallon can thrust himself between like he's coming home, finally taking possession of something promised him since birth, or before. For Jesus, they fit together like they was made for it, him and this mad fool; it’s God's own silent touch on Priest's back, like Bill's—his guiding thrust. The dagger itself, slipping in and in and in, like there could be nothing more suitable.
Thinking: //We both know what we say is true isn't, half the time; just don't know why, or how. And that's why they call it faith, after all.//
"Oh, and look at you," he murmurs, grinning down at him as he does so, same as any moon-struck booby never saw his heart's desire quite so close before. "Butcher, you're the Devil's own workshop."
Hoarse, but otherwise sharp as ever: "Christ Crucified, nailed up ten feet high in the Garden. Just spare me the flowery nothin's and do your damn business, addlepate."
Enough to warrant at least a cuff, from any other. But right at this moment, there's no one he'd rather insult him so—not when he’s already all but through the doorway he’d sell his poor lost soul to enter yet one time more.
"William," he whispers, hotly, in the Butcher's ear, "yeh may take this for vow, always presuming you need one: All our differences are set aside on my part, for now and always. Even were you to put your knife t’my neck this very moment, I’d drown us both in blood before I let you go again."
And: No answer to that, just rough teeth on his pectoral, like Bill's fair trying to mouth the Priest's heart right out of its red nest beneath—he sucks hard, harder, as blood lights his eyes, abrading the flesh with his teeth to make it sting all the more. While Priest shouts at the feel and thrusts in hard, drawing a shout of his own by way of reply.
"Blasphemous Yankee bastard," the Priest calls him, affectionately, stirring from top to tail and right back ‘round, just to hear the sound Bill makes when he does. "Ah yes, that's the spot, isn’t it? For much as you love t'win, I do t'ink yeh love the losin' even more, in some cases..."
"Yeah, you just keep on tellin' yourself that, Paddy. Fuck!"
After which it’s nothing but frenzied movement and sobbing breath, pushing and pulling ‘till they find their rythmn, galloping full-speed towards the finish line. Arriving in tandem with a mutual wrench, a hot spurt mirrored inside //and// out, that leaves them shaking so hard in its aftermath it keeps them knotted for comfort ‘till they slacken and sink into a fitful, restive mockery of sleep. Until what passes for dawn spills in on them, revealing Butcher and Priest still conjoined and blinking in the wreck of their true nakedness: Without armor or pretense, though never—
(not in Bill’s case, at the very least)
The Priest touches him on the shoulder, soft enough so’s it can’t be mistaken for any sort of threat, and waits patiently for that slit-eyed glare to turn fully his way before he asks what’s in his heart.
"We fell out hard, you and me, and it’s not as though you had //no// part of the right of it, for all I may have implied otherwise. So tell me truthfully, William: What is it really brings you here, beyond the mere call of flesh? This is quite some meritorious service you keep giftin’ me with."
"You sayin’ I //make// you play your part, that it—Vallon the Allmighty, blameless as ever, no matter the circumstance?" A harsh laugh, the brisk scrape of knife on knife. "Speak true yourself, proselyte: I had to venture a guess, I'd say you needed this at least as much as me, given the way things went. And that’d be ‘cause you //like// it."
"Did I ever claim not to?"
A moment’s silence, split midway by some exhalation too faint to be quite called a sigh, yet a bit too definite to be something else. Then:
"I've lived my life by your example, Priest," Bill says, slowly—"Saint Paddy the Martyr, Pope of the Dead Rabbits, only man in my long life I ever thought to look up to. You died for me—"
"//Because of// you."
"And Mary’s son died for us both, yes—is there some point you're coming close to makin'?"
Bill sighs again, louder this time, and slightly less forebearing. "Point //is//: I set my pattern after you, so this is what I owe. And whatever you may’ve thought of me when we was both upright, I do pay my debts, when I’m able."
"On account of I beat you the once, let alone given you sent me here, after it?" Priest shakes his head, frowning at the sheer foolishness of it. "Ridiculous. And I’m to suppose you'd do the same for any other man who bested you, am I?"
"No, you ain’t. ‘Cause no //other// man ever did."
And there’s nothing can really be said to that, not in strictest honesty, so the Priest doesn’t even try; lets it go by without comment, stares out the window instead, down onto the field. Notes how the sun itself seems to grow darker with each new "day", slowly but steadily, and wonders where this progression will leave them: Nowhere good, surely. Not in any way that he can fathom, without help.
But Bill’s speaking once more—even slower, //uncertain// in a way Priest’s seldom heard him. Toeing the floor with one bare foot, his own eyes kept scrupulously on the empty back of his favorite rocking-chair, as though he expects if he only stares at it long enough, far better words than the ones he thinks of may yet reveal themselves amongst its nicks and scratches.
"Strikes me I might as well belong to you as not," he says, "like it strikes me I might as well take //you// as belonging to me, and to Hell with what you have to say about it, anyroads. Ain't nobody else left for us, not there, not here—"
"So we stand together or fall together, at least ‘till we can get quit of this everlasting shit-hole. And then you can do what you want and whistle if ya dream I care—run off to Heaven with both arms flappin’, see if //they//’ll have ya, which they won’t. ‘Cause you DO think you're better than me, but you ain't, not to no perceptual degree. You and me, Priest, we're the //exact damn same//..."
A spreading crack in that Noo Yawk growl at last, like he's daring Priest to deny it. And Priest can’t deny that part of him’s already thinking up uncharitable arguments, if only to free himself from this hook he’s hung on: //Yes, just the same, indeed…except for the fact that I //had// a father as well as a mother, the fact I //have// a wife, a son...//
Oh, but that'd be infamously cruel, wouldn't it? Too cruel, by half—and though the Priest knows rage at least as well as Bill does, he’s never gloried in the infliction of pain for pain’s own sake.
Hell or Limbo, then, perhaps this is the point of it: To reckon in your own soul, to your own satisfaction, what exactly it is that you’re willing to give up, what behavior you’re willing to amend, in order to move on. What parts of yourself that you fear or hate you’ll embrace in order to make things better for some other person, whatever the cost to yourself. What pain you’ll choose to experience, in order to get closer to what you want—a union, an understanding, a truce.
It won’t cost him a thing to take the Butcher back, not really. But for the Butcher to even offer, to admit he might want to //be// took…
"Begun to chafe on you at last, this place?"
A snort. "Like you ain’t full cognizant of that same fact, already."
Priest gives his own sigh at that, holds it a heartbeat before looking at him, straight on. And says, bracing for the explosion even as it leaves his mouth—
"Sure, it’s a great fool you are, Bill Cutting, in death as much as in life; with me no better indeed, God help me. Great fools we are both, the two of us."
But: "Maybe," Bill replies, still without looking up. "Never broke my given word yet, though, to you or to any other—not without due provocation. Did I?"
"Not that I know of, no."
Another silence, the sun almost risen. And as they sit there side by side, watching it—so close they might be touching, if only they for the fact they aren’t—the Priest feels something unseen slip between his ribs, swift and sure and almost painless; something the size of a slim-pared knife, perhaps, filed extra-keen in anticipation of battle. Or an arrow’s head shot by some careless Pagan god too Lucifer-arrogant to know his time is already up, long-come and equal-long gone.
//I do this, I’m damned for sure,// Priest thinks, not for the first time, or the last. //Yoke myself to my enemy in word as well as deed, pitting us both against the will of…God?…//
One can only presume, with presumption its own sort of horrid errror. And yet—he finds the words (sin, error, damnation) have far less sting to their tails than once they would have; so little, in actuality, that he can smile over the idea, and not fear he’s tweaking his Savior’s nose by doing it.
"Done," he tells Bill, finally—then draws him to him without asking permission, holds him hard, even when he starts to fuss. And won’t let go, no matter how he fights.