by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
illustrated by The Druid
Elbow on thigh and chin glumly in palm, Rory gazed into the forest gloom. Behind the cabin, from the new pile of logs that resembled a barn the way a cairn resembled a castle, came a mighty racket as of crockery colliding, and some whoops and laughter. Some of the men were at that stage of drunkenness that found everything amusing.
Rory hunched forward on the edge of the stump where he was perched. He himself had accepted a drappie of what they were pleased to call whiskey on this benighted continent, and although it was merrily dissolving his innards the way it had peeled the lining from his throat going down, it hadn’t lightened his mood or dulled the throb of his knee the way he’d hoped.
To think he’d been looking forward to this evening. A chance to hear music and dance to it, perhaps to talk with someone who had read the latest installments of Mr. Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, at the very least to eat some of the raisin baps that Mrs. Anderson had baked yesterday and forbidden them all to touch on pain of nothing but stale crusts for a week. But now dancing was out of the question, and none of the men wanted to talk of anything but Mackenzie’s rebellion in any case.
Rory pulled his muffler closer around his neck and imagined the verdant, balmy spring at home. Men who’d been here half their lives laughed at him and told him he’d harden to the climate, but the longer he stayed in Upper Canada the more it seemed to leach the endurance from his Edinburgh-bred bones. Not that leaving was a choice within his reach. Clerking in a cow-shed of a general store in a wilderness made up of towering undergrowth and mud was as fair a chance as he was going to get for the foreseeable future.
Rory dropped his head into his hands and made a noise of deep frustration.
“For the love of everything holy, must you spew on the ley line? Oh, go ahead, then. Doom the household to consumption and sour milk unto seven generations, I’m sure it’s nothing to me.”
Rory raised his head and looked across the newly cleared plot of land at the white figure silhouetted against the trees. “What?”
The man started. “What?”
“What?” Rory said again.
“You can see me?”
The man must be as scammered as the rest of the company. “Aye, of course I can see you.” Pale skin, a sleek cap of black hair; rather old-fashioned clothing, breeches and high boots and a flowing blue coat, with glints of gold at cuffs and throat and waist. Though now that Rory thought about it, it was odd that he could see the man in such detail, as though he were standing in sunlit noon. It was almost as though he were softly glowing. Rory squinted upward. It must be a trick of the moonlight.
“But I’m not even–hmm.” The man tilted his head. “By any chance, were you born with a caul?”
Rory straightened. “How do you ken that?”
“It’s not every soul who can see me when I’m not trying to be seen.” His voice was oddly wistful, its lilt marking him as hailing from Ireland. He stepped away from the ragged line of the forest and threaded lightly between the stumps. As he came closer, the lustre around him seemed to dim; by the time he reached Rory, he was illuminated only by the blue-grey light of a waxing moon. “What would your name be?”
“Rory McAllister. And you, sir?”
“Liam will do.” Uninvited, he alighted on the stump beside Rory. “You’re not enjoying the company of your fellows?”
“I needed a breath of air.” If it was chilly out here under the stars, at least it was free of the fug of sweaty wool, woodsmoke and spirits.
“Ah. Not one for parties?”
“I like parties well enough.” He was no wallflower; books weren’t sufficient company all of the time. “It’s just…different from at home.”
“Light’s own truth, that.”
“They’ve not even got an orchestra, just a fiddler. Well, a man with a fiddle.”
“That’s a different thing,” Liam agreed.
“Instead of announcing dinner, they just put everything out in a jumble. People were eating slices of pie out of hand! And passing a jug of whiskey around, with no glasses in sight! With women present! A few of the women even accepted the whiskey!”
“No drawing rooms here.”
“If there were, they’d be made of logs. Everything’s made of logs. The store is a log pig-sty. Not literally, and they’ve whitewashed it inside, but it still might as well be a pig-sty.”
“No castles, either,” Liam said longingly.
“I think they whitewash everything so you can’t see the frost on the walls seven months out of the year.” The winter had been a bitter one.
“Yes, my word, the climate. One day you’re a steamed pudding, and two weeks later your lips are turning blue.”
“We’re miles from anything. I haven’t seen a paper from home less than four months out of date since I arrived. And the victuals! Day in and day out it’s salt pork and bread and potatoes and beans. I haven’t seen anything green since last October.”
“Oh, how I long for green,” Liam said. “Everything sleeps so deeply under the snow.”
“And the insects.”
“Territorial and cliquish.”
“And the prices! I put an elbow through one of my shirts last month, and if you knew–”
Rory broke off, not with a cry so much as a sudden deficit of air. He’d been so exercised that he’d made as if to rise and pace, forgetting his knee for one regrettable instant. He banged back down onto the stump and made a wheezing noise.
“What’s wrong?” Liam was in front of him now, crouching to look with concern into Rory’s face.
“I twisted my leg, earlier. While we were raising the barn.” A foot put wrong, exertion at the wrong moment, and he’d felt something pop gently at the side of his knee. The pain had grown, not ebbed, over the course of the following hours. He should have stopped to at least bind it, but he’d been hoping to prove that Mr. Anderson’s soft city clerk was as much a man as the rest of them. More fool he.
“Let me see.” Liam put his one hand on Rory’s thigh, close to the knee, and hovered the other above the injury. Rory drew in breath to brace himself, but Liam didn’t touch the most painful part. “I see. I could do something about that, if you wish.”
“Are you a physician?”
Liam smiled. “Nothing like. But I have some little skill.”
“Then, aye, please, I’d be grateful,” Rory said, wondering if the man had a jar of liniment in his pocket, or some country remedy involving ash poultices or pine sap or something else close to hand. Or perhaps what Rory suspected was true, and the skill Liam spoke of needed nothing so prosaic.
Liam turned his head to look backwards into the darkened forest. “May I have your leave?”
“Aye, I already said…er…who are you talking to?”
Liam turned back and placed his hands very lightly on either side of Rory’s knee. “The ones who were here before us. They’ve been far more generous than any of us had a right to expect, but still. I don’t like to assume.”
Rory felt the back of his neck prickle as he looked out into the grey-on-black of the winter forest. “Are they, uh, there now?”
“They’re always there. Hush, now.”
Rory closed his mouth and sat as still and silent as he could. The cloud of his breath billowed out in front of him. He could feel the warmth of Liam’s hands very faintly, and a stronger warmth where Liam’s shin pressed against his own. The moonlight gleamed on Liam’s hair and seemed to make his coat sparkle, as if it had been sprinkled with silver dust.
Consideration of his immortal soul passed through Rory’s mind and slid away with its accustomed lack of urgency. If the church was correct, Rory was already damned dozens of times over, and had been long before he allowed one of the fae folk to lay hands on him. He focused his attention on one of the nearer stumps and tried to pretend he felt nothing at the sight of a man kneeling at his feet.
After a time, Liam withdrew his hands and shook them out. “There. Best give it a few moments yet.” He regained his seat beside Rory. “Tell me, then, what’s a Rory McAllister doing in the land of frosted pig-sties and salt pork?”
Rory tried to sketch a brief and dignified picture of his last ten months, but he found it all tumbling out of him, how fourth sons, even fourth sons of moderately prosperous merchants, had slim prospects, and how enticing the letters his father’s cousin’s husband had sent back from across the sea had made the new world seem, and how everyone concerned had been well in agreement that it was past time he take his own reins, and how words like town and road and society had completely different connotations on this side of the ocean. And how he was trying his best, but everything that should be familiar here was alien, from the taste of the butter to the breath of the wind in the trees, and everything he had known seemed unbearably far away.
“…I do beg your pardon,” he said, realizing uncomfortably that he’d been blethering far too intimately for far too long.
“No need to apologize. It’s much the same with me. I sought new adventures, and found the rewards more complex than I had anticipated.” Liam shook his head. “The streams speak strangely here, and the stones have unfamiliar memories. This place gives me odd dreams.”
“Can’t you just…go back?” asked Rory, unsure whether it would be rude to ask whether Liam’s kind needed a ship the way Rory’s did.
“It isn’t so easy as that. There’s a powerful lot of salt water between here and home. Crossing it nearly ended me, and it will be some time before I am strong enough to face it again. No, I fear that for the time being my fate is here.”
They sat in silence for a time, shoulder to shoulder on the stump. Rory tucked his fingers into his sleeves and thought about the warmth of the bonfire. From the barn, the introductory bowing of a fiddle gilded the quiet.
“Ah, well,” Liam said. “Life is both long and short, and the only recourse is to make the best of it that we can.” He swung up from his seat so that he was standing in front of Rory, and extended his hand. “Will you dance with me?”
Rory flexed his knee cautiously, and found that it moved with no pain at all. He slid his hand into Liam’s–it was human-warm–and then, self-consciously, glanced backwards at the house.
“No one will see us,” Liam promised. Rory rose, and Liam swung him into position, both of them facing the same way as if they were to dance as part of an invisible octet, joined only at the fingertips.
It began as a familiar reel. Rory’s feet knew the steps without him having to think. It could have been awkward with just the two of them, but Rory and his brothers had practiced plenty of times with only each other to make up the set. Liam’s hands were sure on his as they moved, wheeling around a fixed point or forming a circle with their linked arms. Rory’s knee felt as strong as it had ever been, and the exertion warmed every part of him that had grown clumsy sitting on an uncushioned stump in the early spring dark.
He wasn’t sure exactly when it changed. It wasn’t that he stopped hearing the music, or was no longer moving of his own accord, but somehow the steps became fiercer, the music something that vibrated in his bones rather than his ears. He spiralled and pivoted, pointed his toes and reached his hands towards the stars. From time to time he was caught in Liam’s embrace, and they spun together until the spinning pulled them away. Then he revolved like a distant planet around the awareness of the other man, until the gravity of the dance brought them back into one another’s orbit, shared grip steadying them as they whirled, the forces of push and pull balancing them perfectly, both together and apart.
And then came the moment when the music receded and the embrace didn’t end. He and Liam stood chest to heaving chest, breaths mingling. Rory felt as giddy as if he’d downed several gulps of whiskey from Mr. MacClelland’s earthenware jug. It was an effort to force his gaze from Liam’s mouth to Liam’s eyes, and what he saw there gave him the reckless courage to cross those few inches and press his lips to Liam’s.
As a kiss it was practically chaste, until Liam made a sound in the back of his throat and suddenly it wasn’t. Their mouths opened. Rory slid a hand up Liam’s arm, his shoulder, into his silken hair. Their tongues met, and Rory’s spare hand tensed on Liam’s arm.
“Are you–do you–” Liam barely drew away enough to form words. “I did not mean the dance to compel you to this. Tell me that you don’t wish this, and we stop.”
It had been long months since Rory had left Edinburgh, where he knew the places that like-minded men gathered. “I wish it,” he whispered, and caught Liam’s mouth again with his own.
The stories made it clear that at least some of the fae were male, and Rory was gratified when Liam’s arms tightened and he felt evidence of that fact as their hips pressed together. He rested a hand on Liam’s side, smoothed it down his ribs to his thigh.
“I can make a place for us to go,” Liam said, between kisses.
It took a few tries to disentangle themselves. Liam’s fair cheeks were flushed, and Rory felt as though his skin were alight all over his body.
“This way,” Liam said, taking his hand, and led him into the forest.
There was no trail here that Rory could see. Some of the trees were so large that two men could not stretch their arms around one from either side and clasp hands. Rory thought of the stumps in the MacClellands’ yard, and felt briefly ashamed of his own needs for food and fuel that had led to such destruction.
“Here.” Liam stopped in a spot where the ground was even. He raised his arms above his head and lowered them slowly, and an umbrella of pale silver descended around him and Rory, the size of an intimate room. “No one will see us from the outside.” He moved his hands apart, palms down, and a carpet thickened under their feet. A wide bed coalesced, luxuriantly soft as high summer clouds, with turned posts at the corners spiralling up to meet the dove-grey dome above.
“I hope it suits,” he said, a little shyly.
In answer, Rory pushed at the edges of Liam’s coat where it gaped at his throat, and put his lips against milky skin. Liam hummed and tilted his head back. Rory worked a hand down the front of the coat, parting the golden loops and knots of the frogs that held it closed.
Underneath, Liam was bare. Rory pushed the coat off Liam’s shoulders. Around Liam’s neck a pendant hung, a long string of jade and amethyst beads on a golden cord. Rory trailed a finger down it, enjoying the sight of the jewels against Liam’s skin, and Liam shivered as though he could feel Rory’s fingers through it.
“Don’t take it off,” Liam breathed.
“No?” The silken tassel that ended it just grazed the waist of Liam’s wine-coloured breeches. Rory moved it to brush against Liam’s belly. “Is it part of your magic?”
“No.” Liam moved closer, clasping Rory’s thigh between his. “I just like the feel of it.”
“The feel of it?” Rory ran the soft tassel up Liam’s ribs to dust a nipple.
“The weight of it on my neck. The way it swings. While I’m fucking.”
Rory inhaled sharply, and Liam’s mouth pressed hard against his. Liam’s fingers worked at Rory’s scarf, wrestled off his coat, unbuttoned his waistcoat and shirt and finely knit woollen undershirt. Liam peeled him down to skin, and then sank to his knees and looked up at him.
“Will you take me? Is that something you like?”
Rory nodded, breathless. Liam unfastened the fall of Rory’s trousers, then the buttons on the warm underdrawers beneath, and at last freed Rory’s hard prick. He kissed the tip of it, lips and tongue gentle, and helped Rory step out of the rest of his clothes.
“You next.” Rory would have been happy to spend into Liam’s hot mouth, but that wasn’t what Liam had asked for. He pulled Liam up to standing, and cupped the front of Liam’s trousers. Liam thrust into his hand. Somehow they managed to get Liam out of his clothing, and then they were both naked as stripped saplings, but for the beads around Liam’s neck and the bangles and bracelets encircling his wrists.
Liam clasped Rory’s forearms and walked backwards, drawing him to the bed. When they reached it, he lay full-length and opened his arms. Rory rolled into them.
They kissed increasingly fervently, clutching at one another, legs tangled together. When Rory pushed Liam onto his back and rutted against him, Liam reached between them to take both their pricks in his hand, and Rory let out a groan that felt torn from him.
Liam thrust up against his weight. “Yes. I want you to have me now.”
Rory rolled off Liam again and pushed him onto his side, then snugged up against his back. “Do you have…”
“Hmm. Yes.” Liam paused, and then nudged his arse back against Rory. “I’m ready.”
Rory took him slowly, so slowly that Liam muttered I’ll not break and wriggled and arched his back, trying to get Rory to move faster. But this moment of intimate joining was always profound to Rory, whichever part he took, and his spirit needed time to adjust as much as his body did. When he was deep in Liam, he buried his face in the tender spot behind Liam’s ear and took a breath. He’d forgotten how it felt to be this close to someone.
Liam’s hand came up and over to stroke Rory’s overlong hair. “Dear boy,” he murmured.
Rory raised his head and kissed the back of Liam’s neck. He put his hand on Liam’s hip and pulled out a little, then pushed back into him again, testing how they fit together. Liam made a soft noise, and the needs of Rory’s body overtook his brief introspection and pulled them both into a steady rhythm.
Aside from the cat-like point to his ears and the glow he took on in moonlight, Liam looked like an ordinary man, and felt like a man, and now he sounded like a man, specifically one who was very much enjoying being fucked. He gasped out little instructions, encouragements, endearments; he bent his upper knee further, urging Rory deeper. Rory held his arm across Liam’s chest and wrapped the pendant around his hand, giving it a tug, and Liam cut off a cry as though pleasure had robbed him of voice.
“Touch yourself,” Rory panted, because now he didn’t want to let the cord of the pendant go, and Liam did, sparingly as though any further sensation would finish it for him, breathing harshly through an open mouth, eyelids half-closed.
That thought brought Rory himself to the peak. “I’m–I’m going to spend,” he had the time to say, and did, entire body shuddering as he let go into Liam’s tight heat.
Liam was shaking now, on the edge. Rory put a clumsy hand over Liam’s. “Do it,” he said, “I want to watch you go.”
In two strokes Liam shot all over both their hands, crying out wildly. That wrung another pulse of pleasure from Rory, and they both sagged into the bed, leaning against one another as their breathing slowed.
Rory sighed against Liam’s shoulder. He knew he should move, do something about the mess they’d made, but it felt like the first time he’d been warm since last August. Liam said something under his breath, and Rory suddenly felt, not slick with sweat and other things, but dry and cozy and clean. He snuggled against Liam and let his heavy eyelids fall closed.
Something jolted him out of sleep. Rory shot up to a sitting position before he was fully awake, shovelling the blankets–when had they appeared?–to one side.
“Rory! Rory, where have you got to?”
He looked frantically around. His trousers and underthings were in a heap on the floor. He seized them and tried to untangle the legs.
Liam sat up. “Who’s that?”
Rory’s fingers were thick on his buttons. He wrestled into his undershirt, flapping the arms as he pulled it over his head.
“Rory McAllister, if you’re not here in two minutes you’re walking home!” Mrs. Anderson shouted.
How late was it? How long had he spent here? Rory shook out his socks and pulled them on, hopping in the direction of his boots.
“Let her shout. I’ll get you home. Eventually,” Liam said, coverlet sliding down his bared chest to pool in his lap.
“I have to go.” Rory jerked on his coat. His collar was folded under. Everything felt rucked-up and out of place.
“Stay.” Liam leaned forward and stretched an arm over the sheets with lithe grace.
Horses whinnied and stamped. Rory pictured them all in the clearing on the other side of the house, a procession of farmers’ carts receding and leaving him behind.
“I–I can’t–I have to–” The Andersons could be generous when they chose, but they didn’t take well to being crossed or put to any trouble.
Liam sighed. “A kiss on parting, then.”
Rory took a step towards the bed. Voices called farewells, clear through the spring night.
He turned away, to where there was no door. “Let me–”
The room whorled away like ribbons of smoke from snuffed-out candles, bed and walls and Liam too.
“–go,” Rory finished. He turned in a circle. The moon had slid behind clouds. The only light was the glow from the bonfire, more visible behind the silhouette of the cabin out of the corner of his eye than when he looked straight at it.
He barked his shin on one of the stumps crossing the yard, and limped to the Andersons’ wagon just as Mr. Anderson was handing his wife up onto the wagon seat.
It was an hour’s journey home. Rory huddled in the corner of the open wagon, trying to keep his body’s warmth from seeping away like tea through a cracked cup. The Andersons had fur robes for their knees and a heated stone at their feet; he had a few forkfuls of straw and an old horse blanket. High above, the stars were white and cold.
Rory leaned his temple against the rough slats of the wagon’s side. Energy ebbed from him, leaving his soul as chilled as his body. He began to uncomfortably suspect that he’d been a dunderhead, panicking as if he were a schoolboy ashamed of a tumble. Why hadn’t he taken his leave gracefully, left Liam with the kiss he’d asked for and a smile? They’d shared fellowship just as much as physical pleasure. Why couldn’t he have said I’ve enjoyed tonight? Why couldn’t he have asked Will I see you again?
“Liam,” he whispered. He knew it couldn’t be the fae’s real name, but perhaps even thinking of him might catch his attention. “Liam, I’m sorry. I wish I could have stayed. I would have liked to talk more with you, Liam. I would have liked to dance more with you. More than dancing.”
He pulled his stiffening fingers into the cuffs of his jacket, trying to hold the blanket around him with his chin. “Do you ever leave the forest, Liam? Do you ken Carter’s Hamlet? There’s not much to it. There’s the store, and a mill, and a smithy, and two taverns. On Sundays I like to go sit by the millpond. There’s a stand of willows there, and stones that Mr. Bentham cleared from his field.”
The wagon jolted as it hit a deep, half-frozen rut. Rory’s arms splayed to keep his balance, the meager warmth he’d hoarded dissipating like smoke blown out a window. He sighed and pulled an edge of the blanket up to cover his head like a hood. “Liam, I’ve gone and ruined the best evening I’ve had since I walked down the gangplank in Quebec and put my feet back on solid ground.”
The bare branches of the trees cast moving shadows over the wagon, the narrow track of road, Rory’s blanket. He let his head rest against the side of the wagon. It was late, probably near midnight now. His eyes half-shut, unfocusing. The moonlight and the shadows striped everything, a shifting mosaic of abstract angles dimming and brightening as the clouds wisped over the moon. In the opposite corner of the wagon he almost thought he saw–he almost thought he saw–
“Liam, I can see you.”
A moment, and then Liam solidified slowly, like ink bleeding onto paper.
Rory couldn’t help the smile that spread over his face. “Good evening.”
Liam sat with his back against the wagon side, knees bent and spread, hands dangling. “Is it now?”
“I’m sorry I offended you,” Rory said humbly. “I would as lief have stayed, but I was startled awake, and it’s a long walk back home in the dark.”
“Hmph. I’ve come to claim what you owe me.”
What did he–? Tales of the capricious fae rushed into Rory’s mind.
“A kiss on parting,” Liam explained, shrugging with one shoulder as though it hardly mattered at all.
“Must it be on parting?”
Liam’s eyes glittered in the moving dark. “Are we meeting?”
“I fain would meet you again,” Rory said. “And again. And dance with you. And more.”
Liam stood and walked sure-footed across the wagon bed to stand looking down at Rory. “You’ve pretty words, but I don’t know if I’ll forgive you. It’s a blow to a man’s pride to have another flee from his bed so fast his shirt’s on inside out.”
“Is it?” Rory looked down at his waistcoat, but he couldn’t see his shirt well enough to tell.
“And one sock.” Liam looked into the skeletal treetops. “You have me at sixes and sevens. Why I’m not turning you into a toad, I can’t fathom.”
“I see you.” Rory tugged at the gold-woven cuff of Liam’s coat. “Will you come collect your debt?”
Liam hesitated, then knelt stiffly in front of Rory. Rory leaned forward and touched his mouth to Liam’s. He let his lips open, his breath mingling with Liam’s, and drew back slowly. They looked at one another.
Rory reached out and wrapped strands of Liam’s fine hair around his finger. Then he kissed Liam again. This time, Liam softened, and his arm came up to rest on Rory’s blanket-covered shoulder.
When their mouths parted, Rory pulled back. “Now you owe me a kiss.”
“So I do.” Liam inclined his head. “I’d repay it with interest, but I think even yon clods at the front of the wagon might begin to notice.”
“Aye, and it’s so late.” Rory pretended a yawn, which turned into a real one. “If you wait until tomorrow night, or the next, there’ll be even more interest to account for.”
“You drive a hard bargain.” Liam’s lips twitched. “Carter’s Hamlet, you say?”
“In the log store beside the smithy. I have a cot in the lean-to at the back. The Andersons have their own cabin down the road, so I’m quite alone at night, though I warn you that the bed’s lumpy and there aren’t enough blankets.”
“Oh, I don’t feel the cold as you do.” Liam stood with the grace of a flower opening. “Until tomorrow night. Or the next.”
Liam faded into the shifting moonlight, a silhouette and then a suggestion of a shape in the air, and then nothing.
Rory curled back into his corner, folding himself into the blanket again. His nose was threatening to drip with the cold. There was at least half an hour’s journey left before he’d be able to climb into that narrow cot with his coat and all his spare clothing spread over it for extra warmth.
He was attempting to doze when someone said “Psst” by his ear, and he jumped.
A moonlight-pale hand appeared over the side of the wagon, wrapped around something. Rory blinked and cupped his hand under it. When he grazed Liam’s fingers, they opened to release their burden into his own.
A smooth stone, just the size and shape to fit agreeably into his palm. And warm, as if it had been baked in a slow oven. Rory cradled it in his hands. The chill of the spring night receded. He tucked it into his inside-out shirt, against his heart. Long before the wagon reached Carter’s Hamlet he had fallen asleep, as comfortable as though someone held him close under thick blankets, or as though the colourless moonlight were the summer sunshine of home.