burnt offering
by cimorene

the week of astrid's third twenty-ninth birthday party david decided they needed another way to light cigarettes than with matches.

because it had taken a few weeks, here and there, to move into the flat above alan's house, the first time they had made a real meal that hadn't burnt itself there had coincided with the first of astrid's three twenty-ninth birthdays ('i suppose i'm old enough to give up saying i'm twenty-five,' astrid had said bravely). so last year, for the one-year birthday of the flat, luke had burnt the cake david tried to bake, and david had bought one instead at the market.

'i smell baking,' said astrid, 'it doesn't smell burnt.'

david, who was not a bad cook, said, 'i didn't burn it.'

astrid put her handbag on the floor and paused at once to take off her left shoe and massage her foot with one hand. 'no, i see,' she said, smiling slightly. 'it was awfully thoughtful of you. for our flat's birthday, i mean.' there were two candles on the cake.

there was a pause when they looked at each other. 'what do you want to eat first?' said david.

at the same time astrid said 'you haven't made dinner have you?' she had moved on to the other foot.


'then let's be naughty and just have cake. there, david, be a dear and get a cig out of my handbag when you light the candles, would you?'

david did. and when astrid saw what he was holding in his hand--a lighter, not a book of matches--she froze.

'david,' she said, 'er, you didn't--lose them?'

david said uncomfortably, 'no.'

'or run out?'

'no. i mean, i've more books of matches.'

astrid seemed as uncomfortable as david. 'oh. i thought perhaps it was just the one book.'

david pulled a cigarette out of the pack in astrid's purse. 'no, it doesn't matter,' he said, 'any match.' he had, in fact, wondered the same thing himself when he'd first run out. that had been a long time ago. evidently astrid hadn't any idea how fast he'd been using them.

he couldn't exactly tell astrid how he felt silly, calling luke up out of the halls of the dead, or any place, striking a match. it wasn't that luke had ever been reluctant to come, or even less than delighted to see david. it was that david had begun to be slowly conscious, over the course of the last two years, that even if someone didn't mind you didn't ring them up at midnight for no reason. and he wasn't certain that luke would ever let him see if he'd lit a match at a bad time. there was the debt, and the fact that luke very probably still felt he owed it to david. it wasn't a subject that they either of them brought up in conversation.

he didn't think he would have to say anything of this to astrid. he thought she had an idea.

'oh, david,' she muttered, and took the lighter and the cigarette both from him, and lit it herself. the flicking movement of her thumb that made the light spring to life was not unlike luke's cheeky snap. it might be something in the nature of fire, david thought. 'is it all right?'

'it's just i can't go my life--starting a party every time i strike a match,' said david. he didn't feel it had a lot to do with all right, actually.

astrid appeared to have taken over cutting the birthday cake as well, with the big knife lying on the table. 'well neither can you go through life without ever striking a match,' she said.

that reminded david of the lighter, and he reached over the cake for it.

'careful, you'll get your sleeve,' warned astrid.

'maybe i can, though,' he said, pocketing the lighter. 'go through life without striking a match.'

astrid met his eyes over the cake and nodded quickly, once. 'well,' said astrid, 'perhaps it's for the best.'

astrid had been a very beautiful girl and a very young one when she had met cousin ronald at a party given by a friend of a friend.

cousin ronald had been different back then. david for his part remembered cousin ronald as being always very large, but he realized looking at photographs with the childish scales stripped from his eyes--what photographs astrid had kept that is--that cousin ronald's largeness had not always taken the form of pudge. cousin ronald had been broad-shouldered and, said astrid, quite strong.

he had had crisp, curling hair which only vaguely threatened to become the weak wisps of uncle bernard's at a later date. he had had a thin, proud mouth and a thin, proud nose, over a chin that looked like it wasn't quite sure of itself in the company of the rest of his face, and a jaw that tended strongly to grow a beard. david supposed he could see how cousin ronald might have been attractive to a younger astrid.

ronald had been smart, in a way, not just cunning; and what had later turned out to be peevish self-centeredness astrid had at first taken for a sort of admirable dignity. he had had a sense of humor and a facility for telling jokes, although he had never been good at puns, and he had had an ingratiating smile, and a trim waist. he had been wealthy--'though it was your money all along, david,' said astrid--and she had been foolish.

'by the time i finished growing up it was too late to decide what i wanted,' astrid had explained to him, in the early days of their flat. 'and those old leeches,' she'd said disgustedly, 'they sucked the life right out of you, didn't they? i was deathly terrified.' then david and astrid both had been in the habit of dropping, with some embarrassment, large chunks of confidences at once in each other's laps, with nervous laughs and shuffling feet afterward. now they were more used to each other astrid more often confined herself to a sympathetic look, and david to a backrub or the fixing of a martini.

to cheer each other up they had both been sometimes in the habit of calling luke, who had never failed to do enough cheering for both of them. he turned the most pedestrian of overcooked dinners, leaky bathroom pipes and faulty furnaces into delightful parties. the only one who could ever emerge from an hour with luke not suffused with a sense of relaxed and slightly naughty well-being was luke himself, who laughed the loudest.

'i don't know why you put up with them for so long,' david had said, when he once figured out how appallingly long astrid had been as miserable as he.

'it's all very well for you,' astrid had said tiredly, 'you're never afraid of anything.'

'yes i am,' david had insisted.

astrid had laughed.

but david had been thinking about luke. even astrid, to whom luke had always carefully shown a very charming face, could not be completely unafraid of him. luke would never hurt david, but you would have to be a little bit stupid not to be frightened of luke.

and david was not stupid.

it was a few weeks before david struck a match again. he'd gone that long without striking one or talking to luke before, but now he had the lighter and not just the matchbook, it seemed much longer. every cigarette of astrid's made him conscious of not doing it.

'go on and stop glaring at me,' she said, lighting a cigarette for herself, which she'd taken to doing more often in the last weeks. 'i keep thinking you're about to begin lecturing me on the dangers of lung cancer, until i remember you're moping for an entirely different reason. you're going to bring on one of my heads.' and she went down the stairs and presumably outside.

david went to fix dinner. he was an indifferent cook, which was unfortunate because every time something came out burnt, he had to wonder if it had been an accident.

at first it was a few days between matches struck. then it was a few days, except every now and then, he might forget a week. at first that would have been unthinkable. when luke had needed his help, before he'd even known it, david had thought he would go mad with boredom if he couldn't see luke right again, at once. looking back on it later david thought it might be just another power of luke's: over fire, and over people. especially bored people.

but he supposed it couldn't really be just that, because while he had seen luke work his power over other people, even astrid who david was pretty certain was one of luke's favorite people outside himself, he knew that luke did not exercise his power over david. people being charmed by luke did not think about luke's charm, or suspect his motives in it. or if they did, perhaps, they certainly didn't care one way or the other.

when david first started forgetting weeks, he had had to make himself do it. it had been a great trouble, at first, going through the day with the great consciousness of something you were forgetting and busily continuing to forget it, until your concentration wavered, and you dropped it like an egg. then i've not struck a match in nearly two days and bully me for forgetting so well dripped and oozed all over you.

the forgetting got easier with time.

and once at dinner astrid had said gaily, 'let's have a real, fancy dinner tonight, david. a dinner of celebration. get out the candles.' and then they'd looked at each other. 'how long's it been?' she'd said, sounding surprised, and david had been really genuinely surprised.

'a little more than a month,' he'd said wonderingly and struck the match. by the time he'd lit the tapers luke's pale face had been pressed against the kitchen window, grinning and leaving a nose-smear, and astrid had opened it to let him hop through.

even that time, which was the second-longest david had ever left it, luke never came without a match being struck, and he never appeared to notice that it had been any significant amount of time since they'd seen each other.

by the time a week and a half had passed, david was feeling sanguine about the lighter. he had got to carrying it round in his pocket, and jingling it as he walked. with a few pennies together it made a nice noise.

he attended the same public school now as alan and several other boys he'd met before with luke, playing cricket. they still played cricket, on the school pitch and off. he walked home with alan many times, as they were going the same place, when alan hadn't got little sisters to attend to and david hadn't got errands to run, or to collect astrid after work.

he and alan were just making the turning at the end of the street when a boy named paul puffed up to them to ask rather anxiously for a light in the furtive manner of one who cannot ask for a light at home.

david obligingly pulled the lighter out of his pocket and flicked his thumb on it. in his mind, the thumb-flick was always a little snap of his fingers. he had often wondered what that felt like to luke, feeling flame licking at him, feeling it spring to life against his skin--out of it. you could always see the reflections of his fires dancing in luke's eyes when he made them.

'thanks,' paul said, with a hurried grin, and went off past them up the road.

'his older sister sharon smokes,' alan explained. 'she ran away with a biker or something. fell in with all the wrong sort and paul's mother thinks it was all the smoking. well, and drinking. oh, hullo, luke.' he lifted a hand affably and continued up the steps.

astrid hardly ever mentioned cousin ronald--just on off-days, some of them angry and some of them wistful. david had never really understood her attachment to ronald, but he sympathized with astrid anyway because he liked her.

and because he knew the sad look on her face, intimately.

he often thought how odd it was that astrid should not have been related to him by blood, when uncle bernard and cousin ronald were. as far as david could see he had nothing in common with them, whereas he and astrid understood each other very well. he had even understood, when he was only sixteen years old, when he had not known the hammer of the gods from looking at it, that astrid's grief for cousin ronald was for something she had given up perfectly willingly, that you trade innocent happiness for disillusionment on purpose to buy regret.

david thought he might have been going white. he was absolutely positive he had not struck a match. his matches were not anywhere about him. they were, he was sure, on his bedside table, closed in the middle of a book. 'hallo, luke,' he said whitely.

luke grinned very wryly, with his mouth twisting--not a charming grin, or a very human one. it was the least human in luke's arsenal of grins, at least that david had ever seen. he looked down, away from david, and looked back up. 'i heard you,' luke said, shrugging one shoulder. he pointed with it towards the lighter still in david's fingers which he hadn't put back in his pocket.

'oh,' said david whitely, feeling stupid, 'i didn't know you could. i thought only matches.'

'no,' said luke, sitting down on the steps outside alan's house, and chewed thoughtfully on the inside his cheek. 'i hear the other flames too.' he raised his eyebrow. 'i've been hearing them anyway, but i looked in and i thought you hadn't meant to summon me; so i didn't come. you didn't, did you?'

'no,' david said, sitting down on the step next to luke and wishing he could feel he was doing it against his will.

'ah. well, i thought i'd just check,' luke said. 'to be sure.'

the silence which fell was awkward and heavy. david wasn't sure whether he felt guilty for the hold he had on luke, that made him feel he must check to see whether david really wanted anything; or for calling, or for not calling; or for having meant to call, all the times he had not actually done it. he looked up at luke and was surprised to see luke's face looking very pale and pinched, even a little waxy.

some explanation appeared to be called for. 'i didn't want to bother you,' david blurted.

luke looked surprised.

'look, if you feel it every time i light a match or a lighter--or is it every time i'm with a flame? because you came that once astrid struck the match as well--then you can't ever get--i mean, it really doesn't seem fair, does it,' said david confusedly.

'of course it does,' said luke gently, 'you saved my life.' he looked almost the oldest then david had ever seen him.

david, who had stopped laughing this off a year ago, said earnestly, 'but see, you've paid me back for that long since. i didn't even mean to do it, and you saved me from the most awful summer in return. it's easily worth the same.'

'that's only because you don't know what it's worth,' luke said darkly. david rather thought that with this look, luke could not have failed to frighten astrid.

'i release you from your debt,' said david wretchedly, 'i don't want you to feel you owe me anything anymore!'

luke seized david's wrist. it didn't burn, and his skin wasn't really hot. but it felt different from usual all the same. luke's eyes met his calmly, wide and green and dancing, just a little, as from the very small reflection of a flame in their depths. 'david,' he murmured hypnotically, 'you may not release me from the debt. the debt only is. i will answer you to the last call.'

about this time david began to have a vague sense that it was no longer english they were speaking. luke's words were simply too vague, too musical, and too sharp-edged.

'but if you imagine that i ever come to you other than because i want to--you are very much mistaken.' with the last word whispered, the spell broken, david found his face just inches from luke's, so that he could count the freckles over the bridge of luke's nose and see that his eyelashes, the same golden red as his hair, were ridiculously long, and his eyes just slightly tilted at the corners.

he looked very young. 'oh--oh,' david opened his mouth to say, and had to try to say it twice when he discovered he could feel his own breath touching luke's face an inch away and bouncing back.

'it's very, very rare,' luke murmured seriously, with puffs of warm air ghosting over david's lips, 'that i do--anything--i don't wish to do.' and kissed david, easily and calmly, full on the mouth.

when they said that flames lick, that kisses consume, or that touches burn, all these, david thought, were only metaphors. certainly flames have no mouths, when luke withdrew from david his mouth would still be there, and where their hands, then their arms, then their torsos touched, and their knees tangled, david still had skin, not crisped or burnt or even reddened. luke did everything smoothly, expertly, with an easy confidence and a supernatural focus.

still, david felt there was something very important about this metaphor, something powerful and insightful about the connection between flame and luke--between fire and love.

'i wouldn't have said it was worth it,' said astrid, 'of course not. because i didn't know ronald, or your uncle or god forbid, david, your aunt. i couldn't know it, and if i had i'd have run screaming for the hills. i suppose it's as well for both of us i didn't, hm?'

'i think it was worth it,' said david. astrid was not, as a whole, a sad person. she was not going to be sad the rest of her life. david thought he could take care of that, at least a little bit of it, in the near future. he was quite liking school, and astrid was a very good typist who made a good living at it and enjoyed it.

astrid nodded. 'it was,' she said, 'because i didn't know.'