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And I shall know you like the back of my hand

story by Nijiiro Sumi (虹色墨)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/224951.html)

George whipped around on the path, sending up a little cloud of dust around his feet. “How long are you going to keep following me?”

The man walking just three paces behind him raised his eyebrows. “Well, I’d hardly call it following. It isn’t as if you don’t know I’m here.”

George frowned. “It’s been two months. Aren’t you, I don’t know, bored?”

“Bored?” His eyebrows hitched higher. A tremulous grin twitched up one side of his mouth higher than the other. “Why would I be bored? Just last week we were nearly killed by harpies. It was fantastic.”

George’s eyebrows knitted together further. “Most people don’t think that’s…fantastic.”

“Well then, most people don’t have any sense of adventure.” The other man shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “So, are we going? We’ve a lot of ground to cover before nightfall, unless you want to camp out in the middle of a field again. Which I know you don’t want to do.”

Camping out in a field was, indeed, not high on George’s list of priorities. Then again, neither was a traveling companion. He hadn’t been doing this traveling thing very long, a year and a half at the most–it depended on whether or not you counted his brief lark back to his hometown only to find that nobody there knew who he was–but he’d gotten used to being alone. Going into an inn and ordering a single room with a single bed. Starting sentences with “I.” Buying dried meat and salt for one. Choosing the next destination. Undressing as soon as he got into his room, because who was going to see him? But now there was Victor.

Fortunately, Victor was capable of looking after himself. He spoke up and asked the innkeeper for a second room, even if he sometimes had to use George’s gold for it. (And where did Victor get gold of his own, anyhow?) He cleared his throat to remind George of his existence when George was just about to strip off his trousers. He came up to stand at George’s shoulder when he was buying supplies. He didn’t say anything, just stood there. And sometimes he bought his own supplies, the same way he sometimes paid for his own room in gold.

George felt a little responsible. He hadn’t exactly discouraged Victor from coming along. And Victor was dead useful: he was good with a sword, heeded George’s directions, and he wasn’t precisely hard on the eyes. Tall, dark, and handsome, was Victor, with curly dark hair–proper tidy curls, not George’s own rat’s nest of snarls and tangles–and enchanting blue eyes. George wasn’t above using Victor for haggling prices or gathering information, now and again; Victor could charm a squirrel out of a tree and onto a stick for the fire.

“Are you going to do something about my hand?” asked Victor.

George glanced down at Victor’s left hand, which was on the far side of his body, where George couldn’t see it properly. He fixed his gaze on the road again. “I told you, I can’t do anything about it. Sorry.”

“No, I just–I mean, regular gloves don’t fit on it properly. Can’t you, I don’t know, make some kind of magic glove for it?”

George made a face. Speaking to non-mages could be so tiresome, sometimes. “I can’t just make things magic. It’s not like a magic dust I can just sprinkle on things.”

Victor sighed. “I know that. You’ve explained it before. It’s just…annoying. I keep trying to grab things and then remember that I have to grab them by their shadows. Not to mention it kind of puts people off.”

“Sorry,” George muttered.

“Stop apologizing for it, I told you, that’s not necessary. You saved my life. It’s just that, well, as long as I’m traveling with you…” Victor shrugged.

It made sense, really, that Victor was still around. As far as he knew, George was the only one who could do something about that hand. After all, he’d created it. “Maybe tonight,” he said. “I’ll take a look.”

###

They might have missed it entirely if Victor hadn’t been taking in the scenery, as was his wont. The path leading off the main road was rather small and not very well-trodden, and the hand-painted sign was affixed to a tree off to the side.

“Arris Farm,” Victor read.

“Hm. Interesting,” said George. According to the map, the next settlement was Steelgard, and they wouldn’t reach it until well after sundown.

“What’s interesting about it?”

“Arris is the god of sexual love to the Karthugians,” George answered. “Funny choice of name for a farm.”

“Maybe they’re sexy farmers,” Victor suggested.

George made a face.

“Let’s see if they’ve a place for us to spend the night,” said Victor. “Then we won’t have to travel in the dark. And we won’t have to camp in a field for the night.”

These were all good reasons to go in, and so they went in.

Another twenty minutes of walking brought them to the farm itself, if farm it was. There were fields, all right, and George could see some fruit trees in the distance. But there didn’t seem to be much growing. Four or five buildings all clustered together next to the fields, with one large one in the middle that looked as if it could contain perhaps forty people. A small settlement, then, and not just a family farm.

Two women were bent down in the field, their heads tilted towards one another, sharing secrets. One of them looked up and saw George and Victor. George could see the mage-mark on her clearly, glittering on the back of her right hand. The other one had it too, he realized. They were both mages.

“Oh!” he heard one of them cry. “Oh, visitors!” She scrambled to her feet. “And one of them’s a mage! Hello! Hello!” She waved her arm over her head. “Wait there!” And she came running across the fields toward them, holding her skirts up with both hands. Her feet were bare and left prints in the soft, dark earth. Her cheeks were flushed, when she reached them, from her short run, and wisps of brown hair had come untangled from her plait. “Hello, visitors! Did you come to join Arris Farm?”

“No, no,” said George. “We’re just looking for a place to spend the night.”

“Are you looking for people to join?” asked Victor.

“Oh, yes, the more the merrier,” she burbled. “There are less than forty of us here right now, which is a fine number, but we can always use more–especially a fine young man as yourself.” She came over all giggles at that, while Victor bit his lip and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand.

“We’re just looking for a place to spend the night,” George repeated. “We have gold,” he added.

The young woman’s smile didn’t falter. “We’ve room, but there’s not much use for gold here. You can work a day in the fields, or in the kitchen,” she said to Victor.

“I’m good in the fields,” said Victor. “I used to be a farmer.”

“Erm,” said George.

“Oh, I know, you’re a mage.” The young woman flapped a hand at him. “That’s fine, you can join us in the rite tonight.”

George raised his eyebrows. “A rite?”

“You’ll like it.” She winked at him. “It’s fun.”

Presently, the woman’s field-companion came up behind her at a much more sedate pace. “Angelina, are you bothering these newcomers?” She was some years older, with dark hair gathered into a sensible bun at the back of her head, and lines just forming at the edges of her mouth and the corners of her eyes.

“Not at all,” the young woman–Angelina, apparently–protested. “They’re looking for a place to stay the night. I said they could, in exchange for a day’s work.”

The older woman looked both George and Victor up and down, her eyebrows lifted in appraisal. She stopped at Victor. “Show me your hand.”

George felt his heart freeze, and he could tell from the way Victor had stilled that he was feeling it, too. But the women were waiting–Angelina with a mildly baffled expression–and so Victor raised his left hand, spreading out the fingers. It was black. And not black like charcoal, or ebon wood, or leather. It was black like the night sky without any stars in it; black like the thickest forest where the branches crowd so thickly overhead so as to shut out the moon. It was the total absence of light, shaped like a hand and a wrist disappearing into a sleeve.

Both women sucked in a breath. “Oh my,” said the older woman.

Victor made his hand into a fist and let it drop back by his side. “It’s not that bad, really. Actually, it’s even a little useful.” He held his hand out by his side, palm down, and from the center of the palm came a long, sharp point, growing larger and broader, until it erupted into a crossbar hilt. In the end Victor held a sword in his left hand, or the shadow of a sword: it was made of the same lightless stuff as his hand. He swung it back and forth, once; Angelina emitted a little shriek, and Victor, looking shamefaced, sucked the sword back into his hand.

The older woman took in a deep breath through her nose. She had never really lost her composure, but she did look a bit shaken. “What–how did that come to be? Surely you weren’t born–”

“I made it,” George said, quietly. Both women whipped their heads round to stare at him.

“Then you’re–”

“A shadow mage, yes.” George made a little bow. “I studied with the Order of Lacunan, under Master Mage Bartholomew Goddard.”

The older woman’s nostrils flared. “I see.”

“Is that going to be a problem?” asked Victor, who had the look of a startled horse about him. “I mean, we can leave, if–”

“No,” Angelina and the other woman said at the same time. They exchanged glances, and Angelina went on to say, “All are welcome at Arris Farm. Come, we’ll take you to meet the others.”

The older woman introduced herself as Annalise as they made their way toward the cluster of buildings that signified the farm proper.

“So what Order are you from?” George queried.

“Angelina and I both studied with the Order of Karthugia,” said Annalise. No surprise there, judging from the name of the Farm. What was odd was the presence of two mages at such a small settlement. If there were indeed forty of them, they could support a single hedgewizard, but not anything more than that–they wouldn’t need more than that, anyhow, just a simple weatherworker or healer. And Angelina had said something about a rite. What kind of rite? Anything that could be properly called a rite had to involve at least half a dozen mages, and there was no way a community this small could support them all. Perhaps people traveled for it? But what for?

The women took them to one of the smaller buildings first, where she found for them an empty room with two beds. “At this time of day, everyone will be scattered,” she said, “but we’ll be having supper in an hour’s time, and we can make introductions then. For now, please rest. If you’d like to wash, there’s a bathhouse back there.” She indicated the tiny, squat little building outside the window.

“Thank you,” said Victor. His stomach growled.

Angelina giggled. “See you at supper!”

“With relish,” Victor said feelingly. Angelina and Annelise both left, tittering.

###

Supper took place not in what George had assumed was the community house–the large building in the middle–but in one of the medium-sized buildings off to the side, the second-largest in the settlement. Annalise explained to George that not everyone ate at once, as some members of the community were accustomed to eating at different hours of the day, and of course there were always a few who were immersed in some project or other and would take supper alone in their quarters, later.

“This is Joan,” said Annalise. “She’s the closest we’ve got to a Master Mage here at Arris Farm.”

“Oh, stop it, Annalise,” said Joan, with the unconcerned air of one who’s had this argument many times before. She was a tall, spindly matriarch, her hair all shot through with silver and gray. She extended her wrinkled hand, the back of which was adorned with an intricate symbol in blue and silver: the mark of a water mage. She shook George’s hand first, then Victor’s, but didn’t let go of Victor’s hand right away, instead beckoning to the other one. Victor raised his left hand, hesitantly, for her inspection. “This is interesting work,” she said. “You made this?”

The last was directed to George, of course, who nodded. “I was under duress at the time. I’m not sure I could repeat the feat.”

“It’s very good.” She let Victor’s hands drop. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“Hey,” said Victor. “I’m right here.”

Joan’s smile was sincere and apologetic. “Sorry; mages like to talk shop. Will you two be joining us for the rite, then? You’re welcome to, as well,” she said to Victor. “Not all participants have to be mages.”

What kind of rite didn’t require all participants to be mages? Boggle.

“Sorry,” said Victor, “but I don’t agree to rites when I don’t know if I’m going to be the sacrifice.”

Annalise’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, I’m sorry! Nobody’s told you yet, have they? It just completely slipped my mind. It’s just, we hardly ever get visitors, and–”

“It’s all right,” said Joan. “Well, come sit with me at my table, and I’ll explain.”

Supper was a buffet-style affair, with rice, vegetables, and meat laid out for people to serve themselves and bring back to their tables. There were perhaps thirty adults and a smattering of children, all of whom seemed to know one another. Joan stopped several times to introduce Victor and George, and they shook many, many hands. Almost all of which, George couldn’t help but notice, carried the mage-mark. George hadn’t seen this many mages in one place since he left the monastery, and this location couldn’t be a wellspring, otherwise they would have built a monastery on it long ago.

“Are you all mages?” George queried, as they took their full plates back to one of the tables.

“Nearly all,” said Joan. “A few came here with families. But for the most part yes, this is a community of mages.”

“And you all…practice?”

Annalise giggled. “Look at him, he’s dying to know.”

“Dying to know what?” Victor wondered. “This food is amazing, by the way.”

“Thank you.” Annalise dimpled at him.

“Sorry,” said George, “how is this possible?”

Joan smiled. “How much does your friend know about magic?”

George decided to ignore the fact that Joan had just called Victor his friend. “Not very much.”
“Then for his benefit, I’ll explain from the very beginning.”

“Thanks,” said Victor. George chose to admire a well-cooked piece of onion.

Joan put down her knife and fork and used her fingertip to draw on the surface of the table. “Magic has specific sources in the earth. It comes from nature. There are wellsprings of it, here and there, where it bubbles up and sort of flows out into the world. Mages are people who can sense and channel that energy for a specific purpose, such as healing, or metalworking, or what have you. Magic that is expelled by a mage goes back into the earth and, after some time, comes out of a wellspring again. Do you follow?”

Victor nodded, nibbling on a bone.

“If a mage drains the earth of its magic in a certain area, then that affects nature in that area. Crops fail, trees wither, and even the weather can be affected. That’s why mages are assigned to parishes, so that they don’t overburden one territory by demanding too much of its magical resources.”

“Because we can’t be trusted to just monitor our magic use on our own,” Annalise muttered.

Joan shot her a look. “It’s a very lonely existence, for a lot of mages,” she went on. “After monastery, most mages never see or meet another mage again for the rest of their lives. Some places are capable of supporting multiple mages–many large cities are built on or near a wellspring–but most mages are assigned a small country parish. And of course, we’re all human, but a mage misses the company of another mage, on occasion. That’s why we end up talking shop, so often, when we meet another mage. It’s just…exciting.”

Victor nodded again, his cheek bulging with food. He swallowed. “If that’s the case, you can talk about my hand all you like. Actually, maybe you can help George with it.” He held up his left hand, which he’d kept under the table for the duration of the meal. Joan’s gaze narrowed on it, and she immediately put down her spoon in order to prod and poke Victor’s hand, making little noises of interest when her fingers went right through it. “He says he can’t turn it back–”
“What happened to it, your original hand?” Annalise interrupted.

“It was eaten by a worgen. I assume, anyway. I didn’t exactly go back to look for it.”

She winced. “Then no, it’s irretrievable.”

Victor shrugged. “Figured. But I thought maybe you’d be able to do something so that at least I can touch stuff with it…” He demonstrated by attempting to touch the table. His hand went straight through. “Maybe a magical glove or something?”

“Hmmm.” Joan scratched her chin. “Maybe we can ask Job? He specializes in weaving magic,” she explained.

“Wait.” George waved his hand. “Wait wait wait. Sorry. How does this relate to the rite you’re doing tonight?”

“Yes, sorry.” Joan cleared her throat. “Are you familiar with the work of Arthur Beadle?”

George drew his eyebrows together. The name was familiar, if only barely. “I read some of it at monastery. It never made much sense to me. I was under the impression that he wasn’t taken very seriously.”

Joan grinned. “And a shame, too, because it works.”

George stared. “Then your rite–”

“Yes,” said Joan. “It’s an Arthur Beadle sex rite. Modified, of course. But it does work, quite reliably.”

“And that’s why non-mages can participate.”

“Sorry,” said Victor. “Did you say sex?”

###

Arthur Beadle had, centuries ago, suggested that magic did not have to come from external sources, and that mages could, in fact, generate magical energy themselves. To this end, he designed and proposed a number of sex rites, claiming that a mage could channel enough magical energy from sexual intercourse to perform basic spells. He was laughed at by every Master Mage from Kilbeni to Moundra, although down through the years there was always a small number of people who claimed that the Beadle rites really did work, and that mages did not have to be slaves to the environment around them. But Joan was no wild-haired, sex-obsessed young man; she was a powerful mage in her own right (this George could tell from her very presence), and she would not claim lightly that the Beadle rites were more than perverted foolishness.

“And how long have you been doing this?” said George.

“Four months,” said Annalise.

It’s been working, then, he thought. More than two dozen mages.

“Look around you,” said Joan. “Do you see the trees withering and dying? The well hasn’t dried up; the wind hasn’t died; the earth is fertile. It’s working.”

“Speaking of–” Victor began.

“Have you found a way to store it?” George demanded.

“Yes. I can show you, tonight, if you’ll join us.”

The breath evaporated from George’s lungs. He cleared his throat and said, “I don’t think so.”

Annalise raised her eyebrows. “We take all precautions. You won’t–”

But Joan put one hand over Annalise’s. “I understand. You’ll want to steer clear of the main hall, then.” She gave George a smile that drained the blockage from his airways, although the tightness in his stomach remained.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Victor, “but you did say sex, right? So then you all, you what, you get together in a big room and you have an orgy?”

Joan’s mouth twisted into a moue of distaste. “Very broadly, yes. But it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are rituals, words of power that need to be spoken–it’s work. But it is fun, as well,” she conceded. “It’s pleasurable work.”

“Will you be joining us, then?” Annalise tilted her head to one side so that her hair fell over her shoulder and across her face. She smiled coyly. George felt his stomach do a slow revolution. “Now that you know you won’t be the sacrifice.”

Victor gaped. It made him look very young and very charming.

“No pressure,” said Joan.

Victor swallowed, his Adams apple bobbing. “I, uh, if that’s all right. I don’t want to, uh, mess up your ritual or anything.”

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” said Joan.

###

George scrubbed himself until he was bright pink, doused himself with a bucket of hot water from the cistern no doubt heated by their sex magic, dried himself hastily, and trotted back to the room with his hair still dripping.

Victor was still out, of course, partaking in some kind of communal bath before the ritual. He would probably be gone for hours. George flung himself onto one of the beds and stared at the ceiling. What had he done, before he’d had Victor to yammer on at him? Three months ago, he would have played cards with himself, or written a letter to old Master Mage Bartholomew, or just gone to sleep. Now he lay awake and wondered what Victor was doing.

No, he didn’t have to wonder. He knew very well what Victor was doing. Victor was probably rising from the bath right now, his skin flushed with the heat, water dripping from his hair where it curled at the neck when it was wet. The young ladies–and let’s face it, the not-so-young ladies as well–had probably already started touching him, brushing their fingers against his flanks and shoulders and back, almost innocent. Victor would try to touch them back, but being essentially one-handed he wouldn’t be able to repay all their caresses. They wouldn’t mind: if they had as few visitors as they claimed, they were reveling in the newness of Victor’s body, testing the sensitivity of his nipples, his throat, the insides of his elbows. Probably he was already hardening, his penis first lying heavy against his thigh, and then firming to bob against his belly.

George swallowed and let his hand stray down to his groin. He was still naked from his bath, but the air wasn’t yet cold against his skin. He didn’t linger to touch his nipples or trace flirting paths along his belly–that hadn’t done any good during previous attempts, and he saw no reason for that to change now–and went straight for his soft prick, working the foreskin back from the head.

They’d be taking Victor to the ritual room now. George imagined an enormous room, dimly lit, scented with candles and incense. The symbols would be chalked on the floor and the walls, refreshed by Joan or another mage before the rite was to begin. Everyone would be nude. Did they fornicate on top of the symbols themselves, or were there cushions or mattresses or some kind of padding in the way? George didn’t imagine that a dozen couples copulating on the hard floor or standing up was any kind of comfortable, so he decorated the ritual room in his head with cushions and stuffed mattresses. (But then how did the objects not interfere with the ritual? She’d mentioned a weaver mage; maybe he’d woven symbols of power into the fabric itself? Now George wished he’d taken her up on the offer to see the room, just to know how the magic worked, if nothing else.)

Victor would be breathing hard by now. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to resist touching himself. But then one of the women would stop him; probably Angelina, who’d obviously fancied him. George pictured her naked, her hair spilling down her back and shoulders, brushing against her soft, round breasts. She smiled at Victor even as she grasped his wrist to keep him from relieving his own arousal, and then slid to her knees and took his cock in her mouth. Victor tipped his head back and moaned. George closed his eyes and jerked himself harder, faster. He was sure that Victor would be a gentleman. He wouldn’t force himself into her mouth. He’d stand there, his knees trembling, as she sucked him and fondled his balls, and maybe touch her hair, smoothing some of it behind her ear. She’d make loud, obscene noises, but no one would notice because everyone else would be having sex, too. George could see them, scattered around the room, some of them propped up against the wall being serviced, much like Victor was, or sprawled all over each other on the floor, kissing and rubbing up against each other, sweat slicking their skins.

His penis was still soft, and the repeated jerking was starting to hurt. George stared at the stupid pictures in his head, humans rutting against each other, making silly faces and grunting, dripping sweat all over each other as their arses wobbled. The activity suddenly had no more appeal for him, and he wasn’t sure it ever had. He curled his lip and let his limp prick fall from his hand.

###

George gasped awake in the middle of the night when what felt like a donkey crashed into his bed and headbutted the breath out of him. “What,” he wheezed, shoving at the lump, “gah, agh.”

“Oh, shit, sorry, sorry.” Victor rolled off of George, who took a deep breath and then shoved Victor out of the bed, now that he had some leverage. “You stink!” he hissed.

“Yeah, hahaha, sorry, that’s, um.” He heard Victor pick himself up and crawl into the other bed.

He smelled like sex, George realized. That was the smell of all the women who’d had him. And men, too, probably. He doubted Victor was very discriminating. He swallowed and rolled to the side of bed farthest from Victor, pulled the sheet over him, and tried to go back to sleep.

###

The next morning found George squeezing his eyes shut against the sunlight and trying to ignore the frenetic chirping of the birds, without much success. After an indeterminate number of minutes, he gave it up as a lost cause and got up. Victor was still snoring away on the other bed. The one-time farmer was usually up with the sun, so he must have been really tired out by the activities of last night. George resolutely did not think about it as he pulled on his robes and stepped out in search of breakfast.

There was a smaller crowd at breakfast, eating fruit and bread and cheese and cold meat left over from last night’s supper. George fixed himself a small plate and found a table to himself. No sooner had he taken two bites of his bread than someone asked, “May I?”

It wouldn’t do any good to be rude to their host, so George sighed and said, “Yes, of course.”

“Well, I don’t want to be where I’m not welcome.” Joan sounded amused.

George waved his hand. “No, by all means.”

Joan took her seat across from him, her plate heaped high with fruit. She popped a berry into her mouth, chewed, and inquired, “Where’s your friend?”

“Still sleeping.” As if she didn’t know that. George took another bite of bread and cheese. “About the matter of payment, I believe Angelina said that you’ve little use for gold here.”

Joan inclined her head. “This is true. As you’ve seen, we’re quite self-sufficient. We’ve a supply of gold for emergencies, or for supplies from Steelgard for necessities that we cannot produce ourselves, but those are few and far between.”

George drummed his fingers against the wooden table. “I don’t see how much use I can possibly be to you. I’m not much good at manual labor.”

“Something tells me you’re not much of a cook, either,” Joan said, dryly. “Don’t fret your head about it, colleague. Your friend was quite enthusiastic about the rite. We’ll count that as repayment from the both of you.”

“No.” George stilled his fingers by flattening his palm against the table. “Victor and I, we pay our own ways.”

Joan raised her eyebrows, but the next words out of her mouth were, “Well, then I suppose we can take gold, if you really think you’ve nothing else to offer.”

“I really think that’s the case,” George said, and finished his breakfast in silence.

###

George returned to the room with a hunk of bread and a piece of cheese for Victor. There was no particular reason for him to bring food back to the room for his traveling companion, but they’d been starting to clear the food when he left, and Victor was adamant about breakfast’s being the most important meal of the day. He’d be crabby if he had to wait until lunch, and it was easy enough to circumvent that by just bringing back a bite.

Victor was seated on the bed, pulling on his boots, and brightened when he saw what George had in his hands. “You’re my hero,” he said, and fell upon the bread and cheese like a starved wolf. George watched in what he eventually decided was amused affection and took a seat on the other bed.

“If we leave now, we’ll be able to make Steelgard by midday,” George said.

Victor looked up, dribbling crumbs onto the floor. “Leave? Now?”

George had been thinking about the road they needed to take to get to Steelgard and whether they’d be able to make it by lunch, and he had to forcibly yank back his thoughts. “Yes. We’d only ever intended to stay the night.” He had to fight not to make it a question, much to his irritation; hadn’t they said in the beginning that they only wanted to spend the night?

“Oh. Er.” Victor looked embarrassed. George straightened his spine. “I told Angelina I’d take a look at the fields today. I–”

“Was a farmer, yes, I know,” George snapped. He’d come across Victor in his field and recruited him against the worgen; why Victor kept bringing up the whole ‘farming’ thing was beyond his ken. “Why did you tell her that when you knew we’d be leaving today?”

Victor held up his hands. “I forgot, okay? I was just being friendly! Sheesh! If you really want to leave, you can go. I’ll catch up with you in Steelgard. Don’t forget to get a room with two beds.”

George stared. That suggestion actually made a great deal of sense. George could travel faster on his own–not that Victor was slow, by any means, but two people walking together naturally moved more slowly than one–and they’d been planning on spending the night in Steelgard anyhow, so it hardly mattered if Victor came tonight rather than now. What bothered him was that the idea hadn’t occurred to him on its own. He’d been very incensed that Victor had foolishly promised their time to the farm, and when had it become their time? He and Victor were not a they. Meanwhile, Victor watched him with a perfectly guileless expression, the bread and cheese having been reduced to nothing but a sprinkle of crumbs on the floor. He’d finished lacing his boots.

“It doesn’t matter.” George made sure he sounded good and grumpy. “It’s not like there’s a deadline. We’ll leave after lunch.”

###

George spent the morning in the room, writing letters and repairing his clothes and checking his staff for cracks. He emerged for lunch. On his way to the community house he glanced at the fields and spied Victor, bare-waisted and sweaty-shouldered, gleaming in the sun and surrounded by a rapt audience of about half a dozen men and women as he … what, demonstrated proper hoeing technique? Lectured on the depth at which the seeds should be planted? Criticized their choice of crops?

He spent what felt like a very long time eating his stew, but Victor never made an entrance. He left after the fourth mage attempted to make magical small talk with him. Back in the room, he saw no sign that Victor had ever been there. His letters were signed and sealed, his clothing mended, and his staff spotless, so George lay on the bed and decided to close his eyes until Victor came. He lay there for an indeterminate amount of time that refused to turn into a nap, and so he sat up and decided to see what the hell was taking Victor so long. How interesting could a field possibly be?

Victor’s attendees now numbered at least a dozen, and probably closer to twenty. They were now doing something that involved a lot of bending down and then getting up again, while the sun pounded down overhead. George decided that that if Victor wanted to suffer in the sun and bring half the residents with him, then so be it, but he damned well wasn’t going to stay in the room anymore. So he ducked into one of the smaller structures, where there was a window he could use to spy on Victor’s toils.

It turned out to be some kind of weaving or spinning room. Two large looms took up most of the back wall, and three spinning wheels at another. Against the third wall was an enormous table, covered with scraps of fabric, half-sewn quilts, scissors, spools of thread, sewing needles, pincushions dotted with pins. Sitting at one of the looms was a man perhaps twice George’s age, with graying hair and a short, neatly trimmed beard. He raised his eyebrows at George, who halted in his tracks just inside the doorway.

“Job,” said the man, and stuck out a hand to shake. His eyes flicked down to the mage-mark on the back of George’s hand, but he said nothing and did not pull away more quickly than courtesy dictated. His voice was mild and had a slight rasp, as if he didn’t speak much. “Do you have any interest in weaving-magics?”

“Not really. I just came in here looking for something to do,” George admitted.

“Ah, your friend must be the one in the field.” Job smiled and turned back to his loom. “Well, you’re welcome to stay. I’m afraid I’m not much for conversation when I’m working, however.”

“That’s quite all right.” George took a seat at the table, scanning the paraphernalia covering its surface. “I like it that way.”

###

Victor finally turned up to dinner. He took one look at George, scowling at him from over a plateful of roast chicken and vegetables, and his expression turned sheepish.

“You reek,” George snapped.

“Yeah, sorry.” Victor took his seat opposite George anyhow, his own plate heaped twice as high as George’s. “I figured there wasn’t any point, since–” He picked up a piece of chicken, stopped, and put it down again.

George narrowed his eyes. Victor was avoiding his gaze: never a good sign. “What?”

Victor swallowed. “Since I was going to bathe before the rite anyway, but uh, I guess, maybe we’re not–you weren’t planning on traveling in the dark, were you? We’d make Steelgard in the middle of the night, if we didn’t fall into a pit or get eaten by wolves on the way.”

“We were supposed to leave after lunch.”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry.” And Victor did look contrite, was the worst part. He looked like he was expecting George to yell at him, maybe flip the table over, which granted was not an unrealistic expectation. Well, George couldn’t see himself flipping the table. It was made of solid wood, from the looks of it, and thus very heavy, and he wasn’t generally given to physical outbursts anyway. But it wasn’t fear in Victor’s expression, but a genuine self-deprecation: he knew he’d broken his word and disappointed George.

It took all the fun out of yelling at Victor.

“I just got really caught up out there,” said Victor. “I mean, they only just planted their corn now. Now! Can you believe it? They should have planted it four weeks ago, at least! And the lettuce wasn’t getting enough water. I’m surprised they made it through their first harvest.”

As far as George was concerned, everything that had just come out of Victor’s mouth was about as relevant as rabbit excrement. “Now we have to spend another night.”

“Yeah. But this is the last night, I promise!” Victor laid one hand over his heart–the shadow hand, George noticed. His other hand was still holding his fork. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“Fine.” George shoved a piece of potato in his mouth.

“So what did you do all day?” Victor asked. “You weren’t bored, were you?”

George took his time chewing. The potato was very good: sweet and fleshy and flavored with herbs. Pulled from the earth of this farm that was powered by sex. He swallowed. “I found something to do.”

###

Victor all but jogged for the baths after dinner. George did not return to the room. There was nothing to do there, and besides, he was not eager to have a repeat of the events of last night.

So instead, he went back to the weaving and spinning room. Job was there, humming to himself as he pulled a finished bolt of cloth from the loom. He didn’t even look up when George entered the room. George found him to be very good company and stayed there ’til morning.

###

He went back to their room fully expecting to see Victor sprawled out over one of the beds as he had been the morning before, but Victor wasn’t there. His bed appeared undisturbed from the night before.

Nor was Victor at breakfast. Nor was he in the fields. George felt a trickle of concern, but for what was he concerned? Victor was a grown man who could take care of himself, and they were hardly going to run into any trouble here.

He saw Victor, finally, come around a corner of one of the other buildings. Angelina was hanging onto his arm, her disheveled hair covered with a kerchief. They were laughing. George felt his insides do a slow revolution.

They stopped when they saw George. “Good morning!” Victor exclaimed. Angelina dimpled at him. George was suddenly very certain that he hated her, even though he had no idea why. “Just give me a minute to get my things together, and then we can–”

“Never mind,” said George. “You don’t have to come.”

Victor stopped, Angelina jerking to a halt beside him. “What do you mean?”

“If you want to stay here,” George explained.

Angelina looked from Victor to George and back again. “Um…”

Victor opened his mouth and closed it again. He looked bewildered, and maybe a little bit hurt. George felt the hate welling up hot in his temples.

“You can catch up with me in Steelgard,” George snarled. “That is, if you want to.”

###

Victor followed him, of course, because that was what Victor did: followed George around and made his life complicated. George’s possessions were already packed; all he had to do was pick up his bag and go. But he ran into Victor on his way out of the room.

Angelina wasn’t with him, thank the spirits. “Out of my way,” George snapped. “I’m getting a late start as it is.”

“Wait, wait.” Victor held up his hands. Hand; the other one was not, perhaps, technically a hand. “Why are you mad at me?”

“Because you’re–we should’ve been in Steelgard by now!” George sputtered.

“It’s not like we’re on some kind of deadline!” Victor made an exasperated noise. “I don’t know why you–”

George kissed him. Victor was quite a bit taller than him, so he had to lean up to do it.

Victor’s eyes widened, but he just stood there and took it. After a few seconds–a few seconds where George seriously contemplated dropping into his own shadow and escaping elsewhere–his hand came up to curl around George’s arm. At that point the kiss broke off naturally.

“I, uh,” said Victor. “I didn’t think you, uh–”

“I don’t,” George sighed. He let his forehead thud against Victor’s chest, then pulled back before he could allow himself to get used to it, or want more. “You should stay here. You like it here.”

Victor’s brow furrowed. “I don’t–”

“You do! All the sex you could possibly want, and you can impress everyone with your farming record.” George pushed at Victor’s shoulder. “Move.”

“No, I mean.” Victor planted his feet. “I do like it here, the sex is great, sure, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to go with you to Steelgard!”

Why?” George threw his arms up in the air and gesticulated wildly, nearly smacking Victor in the chin. “What’s in it for you? We’re always almost getting killed, I’ve already told you that I can’t fix your hand–” Something fell out of his sleeve to the floor with a heavy thwap. Before George could screech, Victor bent down and picked it up.

It was a glove made of black calfskin, supple and soft, and shot all through with silver threads of magic. Victor turned it this way and that, inspecting it from all sides. George bit his tongue. Finally, Victor tried touching it with his shadow hand. It made contact. He could hold it. And then, he pulled it on.

It fit perfectly.

“You made this for me,” Victor said, very quietly.

George wished that Victor didn’t look quite so awed. All the hate and anger drained out of him, and so now he was just very, very tired. “Job did quite a bit of the work.”

A smile spread across Victor’s face. It made him look very sweet and young, and George discovered that he couldn’t look at Victor’s face because his neck hurt from craning up all the time. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” George mumbled. “All right, I’m going n–”

Victor bent down and kissed him. At first they bumped noses and George’s teeth clicked together, but then Victor readjusted. It was quick, almost chaste, just a sweet brush of the lips. When Victor pulled away, he was smiling in a way that made the corners of his eyes crinkle. “What makes you think I’m letting you go anywhere?”

George backpedaled. “What–”

Victor laughed and strode forward to seize George’s hands in his, delighted when he could thread their fingers through each other. He sat them both on the bed. “I can’t feel you through the glove,” he observed. “But I can touch you! This is amazing.”

“I–I–” George tried to slow his breaths. He was starting to feel lightheaded.

Victor gave George a quizzical look that quickly turned alarmed. “Relax, I’m not going to–what do you think is going to happen?”

“I don’t know.” George tried not to put his head between his knees. It would be immature and childish, and he wasn’t fifteen years old and in monastery anymore. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that didn’t seem to help. “You, you kissed me.”

“You kissed me first.” Victor sounded very amused. “How did you expect me to react except with more kissing?”

“I just wanted you to shut up,” George mumbled.

Victor laughed. “Well, it worked.” He bent to nuzzle George’s neck. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and his whiskers tickled. George gurgled, and Victor laughed.

“Stop,” George rasped. When Victor just moved to nuzzle the back of George’s neck instead, the mage had to grab him by the wrist and pinch hard. “Stop.”

Victor pulled away, wincing. He massaged his sore wrist. “Sorry, what?”

“I don’t do this.” George gestured between them. When Victor continued to look confused, he made the gesture include Victor’s crotch more explicitly. “This.”

“Oh.” Victor still looked confused. “What, at all?”

It took George back to monastery, when he didn’t know what was so titillating about the engravings and illustrations that the other boys hid under their mattresses. During those years, it seemed there was a boy abusing himself around every corner, wherever even a modicum of privacy could be found: in the bathrooms, in the stables, in any dark or hidden alcove, or even underneath the tablecloth. And in the dormitories most frequently, oh yes, hands under the covers, always. George tried it, of course, but he’d never found any pleasure in it. It’d just seemed so messy, and so much effort. He’d thought perhaps the boys were just more undignified, because the girls did not seem to have this problem, but no: there’d been Lydia, and she’d been very sweet. She’d liked him very much, and he her, but in the end it just–

“No,” said George.

“Oh,” Victor said again.

They sat in silence for a little bit. George plucked at an unraveling thread in his sleeve.

“But you like kissing?” said Victor.

George looked up. “I don’t mind it,” he said, warily.

“Okay, then can we keep kissing?” said Victor. “I really like kissing.”

George gave him a blank look. Victor appeared nothing but earnest, and George was confident that he could knock Victor out if he became too aggressive. But the chances of that were very low, because this was Victor they were talking about. Victor was a gentleman, or as much of a gentleman you could find plowing a field, and more than that, George trusted him.

George swallowed. “All right.”

Victor moved in. George was ready for it this time, so it went much more smoothly. Kissing was a little weird, but not as messy and awkward as certain other activities, and if the other person made stupid faces during he couldn’t really see it. And he did like being this close to Victor, close enough that he thought he could feel his eyelashes brush against his skin. He liked the curl of Victor’s fingers on the back of his neck, scratching into his hair, and–

“Augh,” said George, muffled into Victor’s mouth as he felt himself tipping backward.

“Just getting comfortable,” Victor murmured as he guided George down. “It’s okay.” He didn’t get on top of George, thank goodness, but spread himself out beside. This time he didn’t go straight for George’s lips but kissed him on the jaw, then under the ear. “Is this okay?”

“Yeah.” It was more comfortable like this. George found that he could relax and just let Victor put his mouth all over him, and Victor was very warm pressed up aginst his side. This was great. Then Victor applied his tongue to George’s neck, which he didn’t really care for, but didn’t dislike so much that he felt a need to voice it.

Victor moved up to kiss George on the mouth again, and oh, was this what it was supposed to be like? Those sloppy moves with Lydia had been nothing like this. This was intimate and very…deep. George opened his mouth wider, wondering if he should possibly put a stop to this, when Victor broke it off himself. “This really isn’t doing anything for you?”

“What?” George blinked. The room seemed very bright now that Victor wasn’t occupying his entire field of vision.

Victor looked a little mussed and wild-eyed. He chewed his lower lip. “Just wondering.”

George propped himself up on his elbows and looked down. Victor was belly-down on the bed, but… “Really? Just from that?” When Victor gave him a strange look, he pointed out, “But you’ve been having sex practically since we got here.”

Victor’s grin turned fiendish and slightly dreamy. “Yeah, I guess I have.”

George gave some thought to those slick, wet sounds that were always coming from the other boys’ beds in the dormitory. He supposed the act itself didn’t repulse him, as long as he wasn’t a part of it. Mostly it just seemed very foreign and very pointless. And he hadn’t liked those boys.

“Show me,” George commanded. The bug-eyed look on Victor’s face was priceless; George almost burst out laughing. He needed to take advantage of Victor more often. “Go on. Do it.”

Victor shucked off his trousers as if they were on fire. His erection bobbed up from under his shirt, red and flushed. He looked ridiculous, and it didn’t help when Victor seized himself in hand and gave himself a pump. He groaned, spat in his hand, and did it once more. Then he rolled onto his back, with his knees bent and his feet flat on the bed, and started to really flog himself. George rolled onto his side so that he had a better view and propped his head up on one hand. Victor turned his head. “Something funny?”

“Mmm.” George didn’t know how to not find this funny. Victor’s thighs jiggled as his hips gave little bucks. His face flushed, and the red spread down his neck and partway down his chest in blotches. The head of his prick peeped out from the foreskin and then back again, like a gopher popping out of its hole. George put his hand over his mouth. Victor stilled. He reached down with his gloved hand and traced one finger up and down it. It made a shiver pass through his whole body, and his eyelids fluttered.

“What?” said George. “What was that?”

“It felt like someone else.” Victor grinned. He curled his right hand into a fist up by his head and went at it with his gloved hand. The leather was soft and well-oiled, but still, it couldn’t have been terribly comfortable. Victor didn’t seem to mind. It was clumsy at first, until finally he just held his hand still and thrust his hips up into the tunnel of his fingers over and over again, with breathy little grunts each time. George could see fluid leaking from the head of his prick, spreading itself down the length of Victor’s shaft. The glove was going to be disgusting after this.

The whole time, Victor kept his head turned to one side, his gaze fixed on George. George decided that he liked being the focus of Victor’s attention. He liked seeing Victor’s eyelids flutter, his gaze unfocus, and then finally they closed, seemingly of their own volition. Victor groaned; his shoulders twisted. His thrusts and jerks became more erratic. George realized he was chewing on his thumbnail. He hadn’t bitten his nails since monastery.

“I’m coming,” Victor breathed.

“I know,” George replied. This was the first time anyone had come in front of him, knowing that he was watching. He sat up a little more on the bed.

Victor let out his breath in a long, wheezing exhale. He didn’t shoot much; gave it all to the farm, probably, and their stupid rite. But he shuddered and shivered for a long time, eyes closed, and George liked watching that.

###

They left just before lunch. Victor had wanted to stay for lunch at least–he never passed up an opportunity to eat–but George didn’t want to feel any more indebted to the community than he already did, and also, he didn’t want to see Angelina (or for Victor to see Angelina). He didn’t say that, though.

But Victor knew. “You’re so possessive,” he said. “It’s kind of hilarious.”

George scowled. “This isn’t going to work.”

Victor tilted his head and adopted a thoughtful expression. “The possessiveness? I don’t know, I think–”

“No, I mean.” George waved his hand between them. “This. This whole thing. I’ve tried it before,” once, when he was fifteen, with a girl his age, but he didn’t see why that wasn’t relevant, “and it just. It doesn’t. You’ll want me to–to do things, or you’ll want to do them to me, and I–”

“Can you use the word?” Victor seemed genuinely curious. “Just in the interest of clear communication.”

“Fine,” George ground out. “You’ll want sex, and I don’t, I don’t do that. So it won’t work. You should just stay here.”

“If I wanted to be a farmer, I would’ve stayed at home,” Victor replied. “I like being with you, and I like you. Will you stop worrying about it?”

George hung his head and sighed. Some people, there was just no dealing with.

“Excellent,” said Victor, as if George had just agreed instead of giving up. “So, what’s in Steelgard, anyway?”

—end—

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