by Yoiyami (宵闇)
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was that there was an angel looking at his painting.
Specifically, at the part of his painting that was still incomplete. No one was supposed to see anything that he worked on until it was completed. That was the one rule that he always insisted on. But he was so hot and everything felt strange. He blinked, wishing his eyes didn’t feel so gritty, but the vision was still there. In fact, it looked so realistic that, even with his blurry vision, he could see the way that the sunlight created blinding highlights in hair so blond, it looked as if it were white. He moved a hand to try and wipe his face; the action caught the attention of the angel so that it calmly walked over to where he was lying… on the floor? Covered in blankets, which was also weird, but definitely on the floor. He ached and felt filthy. He wondered how he had ended up in this position, and how long he had been there.
“And just how do you expect to finish anything if you kill yourself halfway through?” That was no angel.
Julian was just as beautiful as Michael remembered, curves that made his fingers itch for clay and skin that made him worry about how to make stone look as soft as bird feathers. He really wished he could move. He wanted to pull his head under the blankets (to hide from the sun of course), or at least bang his head on the floor to get these fanciful and florid thoughts out of his head. Soft as a bird? Julian was sharp and gleaming, a mind keen enough that, as a child, he could work the priest around in circles in their ‘discussions’. Anyway, the last bird he had touched had tried to take his eye out. Soft indeed. Though the way that the sunlight came in through the window was beautiful as it spilled on his hair. Perhaps if he tried using silver instead of gold on that new box design…
“Michael?” Julian crouched down next to him. “Just how long have you been like this? You just continued working until you collapsed, didn’t you.”
“Why is it that all of my hallucinations scold me?” When Julian began to laugh out loud after giving him a startled look, he realized he had actually said this aloud. He slowly began to feel a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Perhaps this wasn’t an hallucination. After all, Julian’s hair was rather long and he didn’t remember Julian’s laugh to be so deep and clear. And even though his hearing was a little strange, there was no doubt that Julian’s voice was not the same as the one he remembered from his childhood.
“That is because you need the scolding. Truly, you are even more like a bear than when I left.” Though he was trying to sound lighthearted, Julian was beginning to believe the rumors that surrounded Michael at the manor were true. He could not believe the maid when she had said he had not been seen for a week, but the flushed face looking up at him was so thin-looking. He reached a hand towards Michael’s forehead, ignored the resulting growl, and rested it there for a moment. The fever was not as bad as he feared, and he thought that the growl might have been something along the lines of complaining of a headache; if Michael was complaining that Julian’s voice was giving him a headache, he was definitely feeling better. There was the faintest smell that accompanied any room that had an ill person in it for any amount of time, though it was mostly obscured by the smell of plaster. The window was open, and probably also helped to remove the smell, though Julian worried about how cold it got at night. “Do you know how long you have been ill?”
Michael shrugged, and after coughing, grumbled something about it starting in late April. He laid his head back down with a grimace, but Julian noticed his eyes closed gratefully as soon as he stopped moving. Julian had worried about the confused and unguarded expressions on Michael’s face before, but it made sense if Michael had thought him to be just a hallucination. Just how sick had he been if he was that confused about reality? He brushed some of Michael’s hair out of his face, and couldn’t help smiling at the blush that crept over Michael’s face. Michael was acting normally and any second now… yes, he grouchily pulled the blanket over his face. Julian heard a soft sigh, then faint breathing, but there was a strange rasp to every breath Michael took. The sound unsettled him, and dimmed the joy he had felt at seeing Michael again. He gently tugged on a curl; no response from that meant that Michael had fallen back into the deep sleep Julian had found him in originally. From the collection of candle stubs littering the room, Julian had to come to the conclusion that Michael had been working non-stop for at least a month. Not that it was a surprise: even in school, Michael had exuded an intensity that drove him to work long past the time their classmates had left.
Julian pushed the window open as far as it would go, and began to collect the candle stubs into one area of the room. He was trying desperately not to look at Michael, though there was little to be seen. One hand trailed out from under the blanket; it was large and covered in small flecks of green paint. His face was hidden under blankets, but his hair spilled out in black curls that shone dully in the morning sunlight. Julian knew that Michael hated his curls. He would always cover them up with a handkerchief while working, and was never seen out in public without hiding them under a hat. Julian felt like he was intruding on Michael’s privacy by seeing them so freely. But, at the same time, he had a growing need to look at Michael, to see what had changed in the years he had been gone. They had both been so young when Julian had left, and to him, not much about Michael seemed to have changed. He couldn’t image Michael holding the tiny brushes on the table in front of the painting, so neatly waiting to be picked up again and with their handles covered in the same shades of green. It was much easier to imagine him with his hammer and anvil, surrounded by sparks in his forge.
After tidying the room as best he could, Julian went back to looking at the unfinished painting. It was of a woman seated on the ground, surrounded by balls of thread that tumbled out of a nearby basket; on her lap rested an incomplete piece of needlework. The needlework looked like it had been cast aside, her attention instead on the old book held in her hands. A cloud of tiny butterflies filled the air around her, while more settled on the crown of flowers woven into her thick, black hair. The tree she was leaning back against was covered in vines and small wild flowers grew all around. Her face was that of a mature woman, but she smiled gently and turned the page with delicate fingers. Clearly seen on the page was an illustration of the Death of the White Lady, a current popular story.
Julian felt his heart clench, as he placed a hand over his heart in a futile effort to stave off the pain. He knew this women, remembered her fondly from his youth. Her eyes were a bluer grey and her features more delicate, but Julian could see from where Michael had gotten most of his facial features.
Michael hated to paint. Julian knew this to be a fact, and would bet anything that this hatred of painting had not lessened since his youth. Julian also knew that Michael refused to draw even a crude sketch of his mother, though no one could get him to explain why. That had been one of the things the other apprentices at the atelier had always teased him about. There was only one reason he could think of that Michael would paint his mother, and that would be in remembrance of her, after her death. Julian didn’t understand how he could have missed the news of her death. As she was a famous artist herself, he should have at least heard a rumor.
Julian rubbed his temples in frustration: nothing was making sense! Michael had obviously painted the entire room, despite his hatred of painting. Julian had had to pick the lock to get into the room; no one had known where the key was. No one had said anything to him about Michael’s mother being dead. The Duke had not said anything to Julian, beyond the fact that Michael was working on a secret project. Of course, with the wedding so close, and hundreds of the most prestigious people of the country to keep track of, Julian probably couldn’t expect the Duke to pay that much attention to one man. But still!
Julian opened the door to call for the maid who had lead him here, and was surprised to see her standing just outside, hovering with a tray of soup in her hands. She squeaked, and would have dropped the tray if Julian hadn’t caught it.
“Is… is he all right?” she stuttered, her curiosity quickly overcoming whatever fear she had.
Julian set the tray on the ground just inside the door, and stepped out into the hallway. The maid relaxed as soon as he did and he frowned; Michael would never hurt a woman, so why was everyone so jumpy around him?
“What is wrong?” Julian asked her, thinking that he might as well question her first.
“Sir, I’m sorry, sir, but…” she gulped, as she nervously stepped to the side, twisting her apron in her hands, and casting her eyes to the ground before continuing. “Back when he first started working, he had visitors. But there was this horrible yelling, and they rushed out of the room, but were hit with paint before they could get away. And he growls and locks himself in the room, and the weirdest noises come out of there….” She trailed off, but Julian could see that she was just as curious as she was frightened. She jumped slightly when Julian started to laugh, covering his face with one hand and leaning against the door.
“He threw paint at them?” he asked incredulously, amidst his chuckling. The maid, however, did not appear amused, and when she began to open her mouth in protest, Julian quickly silenced her with a shake of his head. “No, no, I believe you. Frankly, I would even bet that he hit them square in the back. He always did have very good aim.”
The maid smiled mischievously at him and leaned forward, glad to have someone to gossip with. “One also had blue streaks in his hair,” she giggled softly. “As for your friend….” her tone quickly changed into a more somber note. “I’ve been bringing him food, but it has just sat out here recently. Is he still there? Is he… all right?”
Julian hesitated before responding. “I’m afraid that he’s been ill.”
“Oh no! I tried to go in a couple of times to give him food, but…”
Julian smiled kindly at her. “You wanted to see what he was working on, right? Michael is very secretive about his work. I imagine he didn’t allow anyone inside.”
She looked down at the ground again, obviously trying to be a proper maid, but unable to fully restrain herself. “He wasn’t rude or anything! It’s just, he didn’t even let the Duke in!”
She said this with such a tone of awe, that Julian was afraid to even ask just how Michael had blocked the Duke from entering. The two men had a long history. While the Duke was well-known for getting what he wanted, Michael was just as well-known for stubbornly refusing to meet demands. Combined, the two of them were quite famous around the village–even at the capital–for their frequent clash of wills. Yet another thing that didn’t make sense: why was Michael working for the Duke even after years of arguing?
Julian thought for a moment as he looked at the maid. He had an idea, and this was someone who had just the right amount of enthusiasm and energy to help him out. “‘I’m afraid that he might get upset, but I need help. Will you help me?”
“Sir?!” Julian was a little surprised at her hesitance. She looked to the floor and glanced quickly down the hallway. The two of them were standing at the end of it, away from the chaos of the wedding planning, and the noises of the busy servants were muted by the distance. The maid remained silent, tapping a toe on the floor and chewing on her lip, obviously thinking very hard. She was very young, only fifteen at the oldest, and was probably just trailing at loose ends with all of the excitement of the wedding. She probably had some duties to do still, but really, the Duke could afford to spare one of his maids.
“Can you keep a secret?” Julian smiled when her head snapped up to look him directly in the face. In her effort to assure him that, yes, she could keep any secret, she nearly stumbled over her own feet in excitement. Yes, she was perfect to help in his plans. “Tell me, what is your name, beautiful?”
She blushed at the compliment. “It’s Marianna, sir.”
“Well, Marianna, I can talk to the Duke if there are any problems or anything else you need to do.” At her brightened face, he sighed silently in relief. “Now, this is what I need you to help me do…”
Marianna tiptoed into the room, obviously still unsure about what she was doing, but wanting to be important for once. She hesitated a couple feet in, but continued when Julian placed a finger against his lips and gestured her forward. They gently pulled the blankets away from Michael’s sleeping body, revealing that he was wearing clothes that had been white and brown before, but were now covered in paint. Julian was surprised when she leaned forward and checked his temperature.
She looked up at him, face serious in a way he never expected. “Sir, my younger brother had the Fever just a little while back. It’s been going around the village this year really badly.” She smiled then tenderly at Michael. “I think he is just about over it; the fever is very slight now. I think all need need to do is bathe him and get him to eat. That should help get rid of the lingering effects.”
Marianna blushed when Julian just continued to look in awe at her. After being surrounded by nobles for so long, he had forgotten how much older and responsible the children of the countryside acted.
She began to look worried at his continued silence. “I wanted to help him, Sir, I really did, but he locked the doors and said no one was to enter and I just…”
“Shhhh. It is all right. It is hard when your job and the person’s wishes clash like that.” Julian said, trying to comfort her and not wanting to deal with the hysteria that was beginning to erupt. He also did not want to know what would happen if they managed to wake Michael up.
“Oh no, Sir! It’s not that! It’s just…” She looked at her shoes and tucked her hands under her apron. “I am a local, sir. He saved me, a couple of times, from the boys. And I can’t prove it but he had to have gotten me this job. Mother was sick and we needed the money and all of a sudden Madame showed up and!” She stopped when Julian rested his hand gently on her head.
“He really is just a grumbling bear, isn’t he?” Julian said. They smiled at each other, a shared joke slowly developing a bond between the two of them.
With Julian supporting Michael’s weight, Marianna was able to strip him down to his underclothes. Despite having long sleeves on and pants, Michael had managed to become covered in paint that had long since dried. Armed with sponges, they gave Michael a simple sponge bath and most of the paint flaked off with little effort. Though Julian worried about the water cooling too quickly, Michael now seemed to be resting easily, his temperature back to normal.
Marianna hauled off the blankets and came back with a rolled up pad, as well as some sheets. He raised an eyebrow when she also came back with new clothing, but didn’t say anything. He had told her that he would protect her from the Duke and she was apparently taking him at his word.
“They were originally the gardener’s. They needed to be mended but with all of the changes for the wedding he ended up with new clothing. So I don’t think they will be missed. It is the least the Duke can do,” Marianna said huffily. She checked the side seam of the shirt before gently pulling it over Michael’s head. “I can’t believe he didn’t wake up…” She checked his temperature again before standing back up. She looked around the room but looked lost as to what she should be doing next.
Julian patted her head. “Back off to your duties.” When she began to protest, he continued, “Michael will be fine. Put the tray next to the bed and continue to put food outside his door. We will come back in again if he does not leave the tray outside by tonight. I have my own duties I must attend to as well. You can check on him later, although I would not be surprised if you find the door locked again. It is for the best that we let him sleep and not be here when he wakes.”
He was giving Michael a bath again, but he didn’t know how much of this he could take. He found himself helpless to stop staring as a drop of water trickled down the exposed neck, gathering in the small dip of Michael’s collarbone. Julian froze when he looked back up to find out he had been discovered: grey eyes looked at him from under lowered lids. He couldn’t breathe when Michael moved forward to cup the back of his head, tilting it gently up for an easier angle to kiss. The faintest of brushes, then steady and firm pressure on his lips. He could feel water slide down his own throat and soak into his clothing. He gasped when a hand was suddenly in his lap, gentle pressure making him squirm to get closer. The kiss was slow, leisurely, but he felt like he was being taken over, losing control. A slow down stroke made him break from the kiss with another gasp. It felt so good… but there was something wrong, Michael would never be like this. He blinked and tried to push through the haze his brain was in. Michael’s hair was short (his mother had always been so insistent on cutting it regularly) and there was nothing of his usual brusqueness in his movements (they were so young when they first fought and…)
“What is wrong?” Michael purred and no no, this was all wrong! Michael would growl and push him against the wall and…
Julian woke up with a sob lodged in his throat. From frustration or denial, he didn’t know. So close! He ripped his shirt off over his head and then pressed down with his hand, sighing from the feeling of relief. He stroked down once before roughly yanking his pants down. Wrapping his fingers around himself, he tried to think of something, anything to get the image of the fake Michael from his mind’s eye. He focused on the hands covered in green paint; how it had felt in his own as he scrubbed that paint off. Michael’s hands were large and very strong looking, covered in calluses from his tools of the trade.
He imagined Michael leaning over him, how large his hand would be as it surrounded him. How strong Michael was, how he could easily pin Julian’s hands over his head. Julian tried to stay quiet as he stroked himself but couldn’t help but let small noises escape as the thought of Michael leaning down to lightly bite at his neck sent a thrill down his spine. He swiped his thumb over the head before stroking firmly down at the same time his other hand gently pinched a tender nipple. It was finally enough to send him over the edge, wishing it were Michael’s panting that he heard rather than his own.
Breakfast the next morning was an awkward affair. He and the Duke were resolutely not speaking to each other after Julian had spoken to him earlier this morning about the state that he had found Michael in. The Duke had honestly looked worried but he had immediately gotten angry at Julian for daring to speak as he had to a superior. Julian knew he should break the silence but knew it would be a bad idea with both of their tempers high. He steadily ate and meditated a little. He was going to have to apologize before they could start discussing further plans for the wedding.
He was about to say something when a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. It took a great force of will to beat down the blush when he looked up to see Michael standing behind him; the dream from last night was still a strong presence in his mind. Michael looked a bit pale but his hands did not tremble when he pulled out the chair next to his. His hair was covered by a paint splattered cloth and Julian sighed when he saw that already, the new clothing had spots of paint on them.
“Ah, there you are!” the Duke boomed heartily. “I had heard that you were unwell recently. I hope that this will not continue to be a problem when it comes to completing your commissions…”
“I am fine now, Sir. The room will be finished by the end of the week.” Michael voice sounded a little raspy as he spoke and Julian could see his jaw clenched.
Michael spoke in an undertone to Julian. “I heard. Thank you, but I do not need your help.” Julian was about to explain when Michael looked up at him and frowned. Michael began to eat his food, slowly and with very little enthusiasm. That was the end of that conversation. Julian thought to himself that he probably should have known better. Michael was not only very private but also extremely independent. This was something that Julian would have to walk away from; he would apologize to the Duke for his temper and they would both pretend it had never happened. They all finished their food in silence surrounded by the chatter of guests who were just now entering to get food.
Julian had few chances to see Michael before the wedding. While Michael was nearing the end of his projects, Julian was right in the middle of his own. He had done the basic planning for the wedding while still in the capital but he now had to find all of the workers and supplies, organize them and keep an eye on everything to make sure it all came out correctly. The few times that they ate at the same time, they were surrounded by other people; Julian knew better than to expect a conversation when with other people so he spent most of the time talking about what was happening in the capital.
Occasionally, when he just needed a little quiet, he went to where Michael was painting. He could lie on the floor and watch the sun travel across the ceiling, listening to Michael paint. The ceiling was covered in interweaving tree branches, home to small animals and flowers tucked in secret places. With the windows open and bird song filling the room, if he relaxed it was almost like he was back in the forests where the two of them had spent so much time in their youth.
Sometimes, Michael would quietly tell him what had happened in the village while he was gone. Michael spoke in short and simple sentences, but they told Julian more than any of the gossips had since he’d arrived. There were times when Julian was surprised that the rumors were true and times when he got the side of the story that no one else would tell. It made Julian realize just how much the village had changed, that he was almost a stranger there now.
And yet it seemed as though Michael remained the same. He had grown taller and stronger, but when Julian turned his head to watch him, it seemed like Michael was surrounded by this sense of timelessness. It was comforting to Julian. How had he been able to stay away for so long? There was no one else who could bring him this sense of serenity.
Julian knew he did not need to worry about Michael becoming ill again. He often saw Marianna near the wing, carrying trays of food, or laundry. Though in the beginning Michael would cough occasionally, after a week it was almost like he had never been ill. It helped when Michael finally finished painting. He visibly relaxed and even let Marianna bring food into his workspace without growling too much. The Duke had given Michael a studio space set in one of the gardens, away from the main walkways. Julian had to admit that the Duke did sometimes know how to make compromises at times. Though it did not contain a forge, it was still large enough for Michael to work on his woodcarvings and to make mock-ups for his metal works.
Watching Michael sculpt was an entirely different process from watching him paint. Michael painted with restraint, his focus narrowed to one small section at a time. His supplies were few and always neatly organized on a small table. Here in his studio it looked as though a cart had overturned, bits and pieces of supplies all over the many counters and bits of sketches tacked up to every available space. Projects of various states of completion were scattered about as well and he wished he had the nerve to pick them up to look at them closer. Instead, he had to content himself with not touching and just watching. Before his eyes, wires turned into vines and crystals into flowers until wings finally emerged like a butterfly from a cocoon. A wand and tiara where waiting on the only empty counter for a necklace and bracelets to join them.
A week before the wedding, Julian could no longer sneak away. While the Duke had been entertaining the Prince for a month already and some others guests for even longer than that, the rest of the guests were arriving. With more guests came even more servants and tensions began to run high. The Duke insisted on throwing the largest wedding of the century but spent most of his time entertaining the guests. Julian ended up becoming the mediator when arguments broke out, usually between the long-time staff and the new.
Julian felt that things were going even better than he could hope for. The bride was a Princess from a neighboring country, the eldest Prince was in residence, and this was the perfect place to cause a diplomatic disaster. But so far, all of the guests were enjoying themselves, sporting in the woods and watching the artists working in the village. Three days before the wedding, the bride arrived and was escorted to her quarters under umbrellas and veils. Only the seamstresses and her personal servants were to see her before the wedding. Then three days were gone, and he was everywhere at once while the wedding of the century finally began.
Michael leaned against a pillar in a corner of the room, trusting that the shadows would give him a little bit of privacy. The swirling women in voluminous skirts and pounds of jewelry gave him a headache and he had just escaped a pack of them. Most of the women were just enjoying the dancing and a chance to socialize after longs trips in carriages; it was the others he was running from, the ones with an air of desperation and fear. He supposed it was his own fault that they thought him to be a noble. After all, his mask was obviously well made and the claws on his fingers were a novelty. They couldn’t know that he was merely an artist who was wearing his own work.
He scowled and took a sip of his drink. He had had little time to work on his own costume for this reception. The Duke wanted very badly to please his bride; between the decoration of the bride’s quarters and the elaborate costumes the Duke demanded, Michael had had little time to work on his mask and the claws. Then he’d only had a couple of days to put together the clothing. In the end, his outfit was a simple formal suit in black edged with bits of fur. He had figured dressing as The Bear would keep most people away from him, but instead he was attracting too much attention for his comfort.
For a moment the sound rose to deafening proportions and the lights began to blind him. The smell of hundreds of foods and perfumes were overwhelming and he had to resolutely crush the instinct to flee immediately. All he needed to do was congratulate the bride and then his duty was done. He pushed off of the pillar and braced himself to wade through the crowds at their thickest. Though he hated the attention the black drew, at least it caused the crowd to give him a little space.
It took him a much shorter time than expected to work his way to where the bride and groom played court. It would have been difficult to miss them, even in a crowd this big. The Emerald King and his Fairy Queen were surrounded by a respectful ring of space; that could also have been because of the very size of the outfits themselves. The Duke only had large wings to take up space, but the Bride was in the middle of a huge skirt and wings that should have dwarfed her. Michael had tried desperately to make the Bride’s wings as light as possible while still pleasing the Duke. He worried that he had not done well enough but from what little of the bride’s face could be seen under the mask, she appeared to be smiling and she looked relaxed enough. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her dress though. The dress shimmered with jewels and sheer fabrics that created the impression of a lively forest, butterflies and birds flying out of sight when the bride moved only to appear again elsewhere. It was the last piece his mother had created…
He bowed to her and was amazed when she curtsied back. Women were much stronger that he had imagined: after all, he had carried her outfit to her dressing room and knew just how much the many yards of fabric weighed even without adding the weight of everything he had made. “Congratulations.” Then, feeling daring he said, “you look beautiful.”
“Thank you. We appreciate the hard work you put into creating this beauty. We shall never forget this, nor you, Sir Artist. Our room is a great place of beauty as well.” Her voice was strong and her eyes gentle as she smiled at him. He never would have imagined that she would recognize him, never mind know him as the artist who had painted her quarters. He never signed his work and refused to meet the commissioners as a way to keep his privacy. Her voice carried farther than he expected and he saw with sinking heart that more and more people were watching with interest the two of them, rather then just the Bride.
The Duke turned from his conversation with the Prince and now he had three of the highest Peerage in the land looking at him, as well as at least half of the room. The Prince was dressed as the Huntsman who had saved the Emerald King and Fairy Queen; the look he gave to Michael now made him wish he was truly a bear, and could run away and hide in a cave until all of these people went away.
Julian sighed as he entered the ballroom. Though it had only been a minor disaster he had averted, it was the seventh one so far and it was only the third course! But it appeared that it would be the last one from the kitchen. Really, there were so many things that had gone well, he felt he should be holding his breath for something to go horrifically wrong. Nothing had gone wrong with the wedding itself, and though he prided himself on his planning and organizational abilities, things were running a little too smoothly.
Indeed they were, for there was Michael in the center of attention, looking like he was about to bolt any second. He towered over the bride and cut quite a figure in black. Michael’s hair gleamed in the candlelight and Julian heard more than one envious comment on the curls. But Julian also heard the whispered inquiries about just who he was; he had never thought about just what would happen to Michael’s prized privacy when he had made his plans to bring Michael’s work to the attention of the Prince. He had only wanted to bring a fellow artist the attention and commissions that he deserved, but perhaps he should have thought more about repercussions… (His subconscious whispered to him, lies, you just wanted a way to bring him closer…)
He made his way quickly through the crowd, hoping that this was something that he could take care of. He had brought Michael to the Prince’s attention to help his own plan to bring Michael to the capital, but he had not thought that the Duke would have his own plans for Michael. The calculating look on the Prince’s face and the Duke ‘s expression of stubbornness spoke volumes about what could potentially happen next. Honestly, sometimes dealing with the Peerage was like dealing with a group of squabbling children, especially if there was a ‘toy’ to be had.
“My Good Sirs, My Lady. ” He glanced quickly up at the conductor. At the nod in response, he was glad that he had made plans as well for the possibility of this happening. “I am pleased to announce that it is now time for the first dance.” This successfully brought attention to himself and the tension began to bleed away. Though Julian was unable to hear what the Duke said to the Prince, they evidently came to agreement about something before the Duke offered his arm to his Bride.
Michael bowed deeply, backing away as Julian did; he was surprised at the feeling of gratefulness towards the music. Before he had mused that the introduction of music over so many other noises would probably drive him insane. But in reality, the music washed over him and soothed him; it also deadened the sound of multiple conversations. The attention of the crowd was refocused back to the bride and groom, and Michael felt the fade back to anonymity in relief. Occasionally he would feel measuring gazes but he could only hope it was because of his presence next to Julian. Julian was dressed as the sun, all in white with a gold mask. It was a simple outfit but worked well to emphasize his long body and beautiful face. His mask just barely covered his eyes and highlighted their brilliant shade of blue.
He stood next to Julian as they wandered around the room, greeting guests and keeping an eye on things. He had tried to escape the last time they had drifted towards an exit but Julian had a surprisingly firm grip on his hand all of a sudden, despite never pausing in the conversation he was currently in. It seemed to take hours before Julian finally moved outside into the courtyard. Michael breathed in deeply, finally surrounded by the trees and fresh air.
“Are you all right?” Julian had a serious look on his face and Michael hesitated in answering; he had a feeling that there was another question this would be answering. Julian took off his mask. “I have been taking a lot of liberties recently. I am sorry. I had no idea that you would be that uncomfortable in crowds. I had forgotten that it had been so long…”
Michael watched Julian walk over to a bench, ornately carved and faintly glowing in the moonlight. The entire area was bathed in a faint light so that it was almost like he had been walking into a fairytale and was now fully immersed in it. Julian’s face looking up at him was wistful and sad. It looked so out of place that he had to speak. “It has been a long time.” Ten years was a long time. It had been continually present in his mind since Julian came back. He had not realized that for Julian, it had merely felt like returning back to his roots.
Michael walked over to the tree that was next to the bench and leaned against it. It was easier to speak in the dark, to do things in this strange moonlit world that the sunlight seemed to bar him from doing. He took off his mask and placed next to Julian’s on the bench. Long, delicate fingers picked it up and looked at it closely, tracing delicate whorls. Together, the two masks looked like part of a series. And in a way, they were; Michael had designed his own mask just after he had finished the Sun mask. Michael would have to ask Julian if the Duke had given him the mask or if Julian himself had been the commissioner. But later, because he had to find out tonight just what was going on between them. If the past was just the past or if it was something they were building on for the future. This was not something he was used to. But was longing for his forge buried in the middle of the woods. But it was comforting to have Julian in his studio while he worked. It felt like he had been waiting for something and Julian’s arrival had given it to him.
Julian continued to look at his mask, though it appeared that he was looking at something else that only he could see. Michael tried again. “You… have changed.”
Julian stood up smoothly and walked towards him. It was only when Michael’s back hit the tree that he realized that he’d backed away from him. “You have not changed.” Julian traced those long fingers down his face, treating him as if he was as delicate of the mask he’d worn. “Oh, you have grown up. We both have. But you are still tall and strong, still growling like a black bear.” Julian finally smiled up at him but it quickly faded. “Still hiding in the shadows all the time. And yet I keep on trying to drag you out of them.”
He couldn’t stand this sad Julian; Julian should be laughing and smiling, never looking up at him as if Michael needed to forgive him for something. He cupped a hand around Julian cheek, amazed when Julian closed his eyes and leaned into his touch. “Teach me.” When Julian looked up at him in confusion, “How to deal with people. And I will teach you how to appreciate the silence.”
Julian laughed at him. “You have been. I would have gone insane if not for my visits to your studio recently,” he confessed. “When this is over, I want to visit the old pond at the quarry. Is it still there?”
Michael was startled by the sudden change in the subject. Julian looked faintly surprised at himself. They had been stepping around this topic even since Julian had returned; now was the time to resolve it. He looked at Julian before hesitantly resting a hand on Julian’s hip. “Yes. We are no longer children….”
Julian suddenly remembered the last time they had been at the quarry. His dreams of recent had been filled with the Michael of now; before that it had been of that time at the quarry, when they had touched in the water and practiced kissing. Michael was so hard to read. Julian had been subtly flirting with him for weeks now, unsure if what he felt was just unrequited. If Michael remembered… but the way that Michael looked down at him, heat and longing, said yes, he did remember.
It had been like this last time, Michael resting a hand on his hip when confessing that he had never been kissed before. So Julian said what he had said back then.
“I will be your first.” Then he reached up and kissed Michael. For a moment he was surrounded by cool water in sunlight as their lips lightly touched, chaste. Then Michael tilted his head slightly and nipped at his lip, sending a jolt down Julian’s spine. Another hand on his hip and then he was being pulled up Michael’s body, muscles lifting him with ease. Julian felt his feet left the ground and shivered in response before wrapping a leg around Michael’s hip to help align … oh God. They both shuddered as Julian ground against him. Julian gripped Michael’s shoulders and gave a satisfied hum when he felt the muscles underneath. They were kissing so slowly that Julian felt like it didn’t matter that he couldn’t breathe. After they parted, they both had to take deep breaths. Julian felt his lips tingle and he leaned forward to kiss him again.
Michael glanced over Julian’s shoulder and Julian was suddenly reminded that they were a short distance from the open entrance to the ballroom, even if they were hidden in the shadows of the tree. When Michael let Julian slide down to the ground, Julian felt a knot in his stomach tighten. He didn’t want to go back to the capital alone this time.
But instead Michael was pulling him by the hand through the gardens, long striding steps that made Julian want to run his hands down them, push him to the ground and spread them apart to see how he would tremble. But Michael’s studio was emerging from the maze of bushes and they were stumbling through the door, struggling to take the other’s clothing off at the same time they were kissing.
He thought he heard his jacket rip a little before it was thrown on the ground. Then they were on the ground and Michael was pinning his hands over his head; but he didn’t want that, he wanted to move and touch and ah! He had not thought of how Michael radiated heat like the forge that he worked at. Where his hands touched seemed to burn while the rest of him chilled. That hand was running down his side, sending shivers and trails of fire in its wake. The metal claws were smooth compared to the calluses on Michael’s fingers and kept him on edge, tiny points of cool sharpness alternating with rough heat. Julian desperately wanted Michael to just wrap those fingers around him but Michael deliberately ignored his pleas, exploring Julian’s chest like it was the first time he had ever seen it.
Julian had closed his eyes but they shot open at the sudden feeling of breath on his nipple. It was only a second warning before a wet tongue lapped at his nipple gently before being replaced by the scrape of teeth. Julian’s back arched and he couldn’t see anything for long seconds. It took a second to register that the delightful rumble against his lower stomach was Michael asking if he had hurt him. When Michael shifted up further he moved his leg at the same time, finally having his leg close enough that Julian could arch up and finally get some relief.
“Yes, yes, god don’t stop please!” Julian could have killed him when Michael shifted yet again, pinning his hips so Julian could no longer rub against him. But at least there was pressure and Michael was kissing him, firmly and almost desperately. One more tug and Julian had his wrists back, one immediately reaching up to twine in the hair that fascinated him, the other to explore Michael’s broad back. There were scars back there, smooth and nearly flat, that Julian only had a moment to wonder about before being distracted by Michael’s mouth again. He moved his hand up and down Michael’s to feel the muscles shift in response, the petting soothing some of the desperation from Michael’s kiss.
Julian retaliated against having his hands pinned for so long by nipping at Michael’s lower lip. The warm tangle of tongues was almost as exciting as the hard and heavy heat resting against his upper leg. He felt it twitch a little when his hand strayed from Michael’s back to his ass. Michael broke the kiss to look at his face closely but when Julian opened his mouth to speak he shifted his leg, rubbing back and forth so that anything Julian could have said instead came out as a strangled moan. It surprised Julian when Michael moved down again so quickly but then warm air was surrounding his cock, a warm tongue almost hesitantly swiping at the head. Hands immediately pinned his hips down when he moved in response and Michael’s arms trapped Julian’s legs against Michael’s side before he was engulfed in a warm mouth. Slight pricks of pain reminded him that Michael still had metal claws, and the threat of pain caused him to moan and shiver.
Slowly, Michael swallowed more and more until the head touched the back of his throat. He pulled back before sliding back down again, teeth lightly scraping the side before the brush of a tongue soothed any hurt. It wasn’t long before Julian saw stars, though he thought he was was able to give a strangled warning.
He blinked up at Michael, feeling as if his body was made of jelly. Michael looked down at him and brushed some hair out of Julian’s face, looking… worried? All the little details finally added up together: Michael had no clue as to what he was doing. God, Julian was sitting there enjoying himself while Michael must have been desperately trying to figure out what he was supposed to do. His thoughts must have been obvious on Julian’s face, as Michael looked to the side and was that a faint blush Julian was seeing? He framed Michael’s face and turned it towards his, catching Michael’s confused eyes with a gentle smile followed by an even gentler kiss. “Thank you,” was all Julian said but Michael seemed to be relieved at that statement.
Julian reached for the ties of Michael’s pants but was stopped by Michael’s hand. “It’s all right.” Michael was blushing again.
Julian blushed as well when he realized what had happened. “Did you…?”
Michael cupped his face again, “How could I not when you looked like that?” He looked to the side again before glancing up at him through lowered lashes. “You moaned my name when you came.”
Julian felt like laughing; here they were, blushing like school children in the middle of Michael’s studio with half of their clothing off. He lay back and pulled Michael back down on top of him. The heat radiating off of Michael was surprisingly comfortable, and little tingles ran through his body whenever one of them shifted. Michael’s steady breathing washed across his neck and it felt like he was dozing off to sleep. Julian wrapped an arm around Michael’s back and settled into the clothing on the floor. Later they could sneak off to the river to rinse off. For now, he had gotten what he had dreamed of for years. Everything else could wait until the morning sun brought the next day.