The Revenge

by Zack (ザックス)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/58484.html)

The witch’s cabin lay in the middle of the forest. It was run-down, broken roof and dusty windows, and the mere sight of it sent a shiver down my spine. I raised a hand to knock, but wasn’t surprised when the door opened out of its own accord — before my knuckles had even touched the rotten wood.

I stepped through the door. It was warm inside, despite the chilly night air outside. A fire burned, embers occasionally falling out to die on the dirt floor.

“What brings you here?” The female voice had a disturbing ring to it, intensified by the fact that the body it must belong to was nowhere to be seen.

I took a deep breath, before letting a sneering smile twist my lips. “Revenge.”

—-

I was eight years old when my life changed forever.

My mother had died when I was but a child, too young to even remember her. And eight years later, my father was robbed from me as well. A fisherman lost in the murky depths of the sea, not even leaving a body behind to mourn over.

So I was all alone in the world when Herr van Wieren came for me. I knew him somewhat, a rich merchant that had often employed my father. A good man, heedlessly kneeling down on the dirty floor next to me and offering me a home — should I want it.

It stung to accept the offer, to allow myself to be taken in by another man’s family, but what choice did I have? I owed it to my parents to stay alive, and knew that I couldn’t survive on my own.

Before I knew it I stood outside the van Wieren ancestral home, rain pouring down my face and masking my tears. It was a stunning and large castle, imposing to say the least. The lady of the house welcomed me with a gentle smile, and introduced the two sons: Gerrit, the oldest, a mature and calm-looking boy. And Lourens, a boy just three years older than me, with eyes matching the color and coldness of the gray stone walls.

I was eight years old when I met Lourens van Wieren for the first time, and my life was never the same again.

—-

“Revenge,” the voice echoed dully. “What a bore.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Revenge is what everyone who comes here asks for. Well, no, that’s not quite true; most of them ask for ‘just retribution’ for some wrongful deed that had been committed. At least you had the guts to call it for what it is.”

Not sure how to respond to that, I merely nodded. A second later I nearly jumped out of my skin when a cold hand touched the back of my neck. Whirling around, I came face to face with a young woman. She was beautiful in an otherworldly manner; it was no doubt that the witch had finally deigned to show herself.

“So,” she purred, running her long fingernails down my back, “I assume you want to kill this person?”

“No!”

She raised an eyebrow at my outburst, looking faintly surprised. “Oh?”

“I don’t want to kill or hurt him. What I want from you is something that will affect me.”

The witch smirked, finally removing her hand from me. “It’s been a very long time since someone has managed to pique my interest. Do go on.”

Inclining my head in a sign of both gratitude and obedience, I continued. “My older brother — not by blood, as I’m adopted — is the one I want revenge on. He… ah, how should I put it? He has a penchant for beautiful boys, the more feminine the better. His father allows it since he’s not the heir, and thus not required to sire an offspring to keep the bloodline alive.”

“That’s a common enough occurrence these days, is it not?”

“Yes, I suppose so. In any case, he throws lavish parties and has a constant change of partners; never falling for anyone or showing any emotions besides fickle lust.”

“And this bothers you?” There was an underlying tone of amusement in the witch’s voice, something that grated on my nerves.

“Yes. I mean, no. No, I couldn’t care less about that. It just so happens that it’s the perfect setup for my plan, that’s all.”

“So, what is your plan?”

Taking a deep breath, knowing there’d really be no turning back after this, I took the plunge. “I want you to transform me into someone suiting his tastes.”

She let out a low chuckle at this, eyes sparkling. “You really are interesting. Say, what’s your name?”

“Dobhain,” I answered.

“I am Jeltje. Now then, what exactly do you hope this will accomplish?”

Feeling a heated blush creep unto my face, I hurried to explain myself. “I don’t plan on letting him have his way with me or anything like that, far from it. I want to catch his fancy, make him fall in love for the first time, and then I…”

“And then you’ll break his heart. Correct?”

“…Yes.”

“I see. And what has he done to warrant such a fiendish revenge?”

I didn’t like her use of the word ‘fiendish’, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “He has hounded me since the day I met him. Wicked and cruel, always at my back.”

“Don’t you know what they say about bullies and their chosen victim, Dobhain?”

“Huh?”

“Oh, nothing.” Jeltje turned to a table filled with colorful vials, and the sound of clinking glass mixed with her disturbing giggle. “I will help you,” she finally said.

I opened my mouth to thank her, but she raised a hand to forestall me. “But,” she said, “there is a price.”

“Of course. I have saved up for a long time for this, and I-”

“No no, not like that. I will give this to you for free, because you’re entertaining me. However, magic always comes with a price. It is not of my choosing, nor yours, and I cannot tell you what it will be like. For some it’s a price they were never ever willing to pay, and for others it’s something barely noticeable. Magic is fickle and unpredictable, you see.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, but I’d be damned if I took the coward’s way out now. “That is fine. I’m prepared to pay whatever price it asks of me.”

“We’ll just have to see about that,” she taunted.

“Yes,” I snarled, annoyed at her constant baiting, “we will.”

Again, she laughed. “I’m glad you came here. When will you require this to be ready?”

“He is holding another party tomorrow night, so if possible I would like to make my entrance by then.”

“Very well, stop by here right at dusk and you shall find it done.”

“Thank you.” I gave a curt bow, pleased to see that she was already consumed by her vials and bibelots.

—-

I had been a fool to think I’d be accepted into a family so unlike my previous existence.

The boys working in the van Wieren stables had once been my friends. They were from poor families, just like mine had been, and apparently found it impossible to tolerate my new position.

“Too good for us now,” one of them spat, “aren’t you?”

“No,” I began, but had the words and the air knocked out of me when his fist connected with my stomach. I crumpled to the floor, curling up on myself when another boy began viciously kicking me.

I dimly heard a shout in the background, then the sounds of a fight. Finally daring to look up, I saw my attackers lying scattered on the floor. Lourens stood above one of them, furiously glaring down at the thoroughly beaten boy. His blond hair was in disarray, and there was blood staining his shirt.

I pulled myself up, legs shaking both from the ordeal and the shock of finding Lourens — Lourens of all people! — helping me. I’d only been part of his family for a mere week, but during that time he had made it infinitely clear that I was unwanted.

“T-thank you,” I stuttered.

He turned towards me, and I could’ve sworn I saw heated fury turning into cold hatred. He looked at me for a long time, a restrainedly blank look on his face. Then he took a step towards me, and I instinctively flinched from the blow I knew must be coming.

He never did hit me, instead pushing me over — shoving me straight into the dung heap behind me.

“If anyone’s going to beat you up it’s me,” he loudly declared.

I sat dumbfounded in the soft manure as I watched him stalk out of the stables, never looking back at me; only sparing a glance at the stable boys who submissively bent their heads when he passed them by.

—-

Jeltje kept her word. She handed me a vial filled with a dark liquid as soon as I stepped over the threshold.

“It will only work during the time of day that you drink it. Take it during the day and it’ll last till sunset, take it at night and it’ll last till dawn. Understand?”

“Yes. I just… I just drink it?”

“That vial contains enough potion for two transformations. I will make more, so just return whenever you need it. Now then,” she pointed towards a mirror hanging on one of the walls. It hadn’t been there before, I was sure of it.

“Thank you,” I said, slowly making my way to stand in front of my reflection. I studied it for a few seconds, noting my unmistakably masculine features with distaste. I unscrewed the cap of the vial, and gulped down half of it with a quick tip of my head.

It burned all the way down my throat, and then it felt like it tore a bloody path right back up. I squeezed the vial hard, not wanting to risk dropping it in the throes of pain.

Finally, the sensation passed. Taking a couple of labored breaths, I opened my eyes and looked straight into a pair of eyes that were my own, yet not.

“Is it to your liking? It’s designed to draw out your dormant feminine beauty, that’s all really.”

She was right; I could still recognize myself in this stranger’s face. Barely. It was still my basic looks — same color of hair and eyes — but everything was more refined, exaggerated even. Full lips, impossibly long eyelashes under a pair of thin and perfectly groomed eyebrows, porcelain skin so unlike my own suntanned color, and a smooth jawline and neck. My body was also changed, a slight figure with no muscles at all; I looked as if a decent gust of wind would blow me over.

“It’s perfect,” I whispered, noting with a rising mix of horror and disgust that even my voice was different.

“Good,” the witch purred. “I hope you don’t mind some friendly advice, but I’d get some new clothes if I were you. What you’re wearing really doesn’t suit your new self.”

I looked down and the simple clothes, made for outdoors work and rough living, and knew she was right. They were too big for me now, as well. “I will, thank you.”

“Just be sure to return, and you owe me no thanks.”

Nodding, I made my way out.

—-

Not having had to pay the witch, I’d plenty of money to buy a new outfit. If things went well tonight, I would commission a tailor to custom-make something for me. I’d need it, I knew, as I didn’t know the first thing about clothes or matching colors and so forth.

I hoped the outfit I had chosen would be good enough, a pair of simple dark hose with an embroidered doublet. The doublet was dark blue — Lourens favorite color — and I hoped it would bring out my own blue eyes, and perhaps even make my black hair seem a bit lustrous. Such idiotic things to factor into consideration, but if I was going to this I was damn well going to do it full out.

I could hear merry laughs before I even reached the garden. A long table was set up in the far end, far away from the castle and almost at the edge of the forest. I counted to fifteen boys, Lourens not included. He sat at the place of honor, of course, surveying the scene in front of him with an air of confident assurance. It made me sick to see.

I lost track of how long I stood and glared daggers at his back, but suddenly he turned around and looked straight at me. My initial response was to turn around and leave, but I angrily pushed aside the urges of the old me. Instead I met his gaze without looking away, hoping I would intrigue him.

And I must’ve had, for within a matter of seconds he stood up, saying something to his guests before making his way towards me.

He was overdressed, as usual. Crisply white hose and shirt, cravat with a ruby pin, and a long crimson coat with gold threading adorning the edges and deep cuffs. His long hair was tied back with a bow, completing the gaudy peacock-look.

Lourens stopped a few steps away from me, a frown marring his handsome features. “Oh,” he slowly said. “I thought…” he trailed off, briskly shaking his head before plastering a smile on his face. “Hello. I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure of meeting you before?”

“Hello,” I replied, giving him a small and secretive smile — one carefully practiced. “My name is Wiebe.”

“Wiebe,” he repeated, a gleam of conquest already appearing in his eyes. He reached out and took my hand in his, bowing his head to press a chaste kiss on it. “Thank you for coming.”

“Coming?” I said, raising an eyebrow in what I hoped looked like bewilderment. “Oh, you mean the party? I’m just passing by and stumbled upon this by pure accident.”

“I see. That’s a shame, but I do hope you will do me the honor of joining us?”

I hesitated briefly, not wanting to risk losing his interest while at the other hand not wishing to join the party and possibly be overshadowed by the others. “Thank you, but I’ll have to decline. I’m not much of a socialite, I’m afraid.”

“Then,” he said, not missing a beat, “please allow me to accompany you during your walk. The forest can be a dangerous place, especially at night.”

I rewarded him with a dazzling smile. “The pleasure would be all mine.”

He followed me as I turned back to the forest, following the road in a leisurely pace. “So,” I said, intent on playing the part well, “may I know your name?”

“Where are my manners, I do apologize! I’m Lourens van Wieren.”

“Nice to meet you,” I smiled.

“Likewise. What brings you here, if you don’t mind me asking? Seaside villages like this one doesn’t get much visitors, normally.”

“Oh, like I said, just passing by. Traveling the land, and stopping wherever I please. If something catches my fancy I might even consider staying put for a while.”

His smile turned distinctly predatory. “Is that so. And has anything caught your fancy?

“Perhaps,” I replied, glancing at him from the corner of my eye — promising, but still closed off.

“I’m glad to hear it. Tell me, are you staying at the inn?”

“Yes, I am.”

“That simply won’t do! Nothing against the inn or its owners, but I cannot in good conscience see a friend of mine living there. Please be my guest; there are plenty of available chambers in the castle. You will surely be more comfortable there, I assure you.”

Well, that obviously wouldn’t work. It would be hard enough to keep up the guise of staying at the inn, as it were. “I’m sorry, but I must decline again.” I left it at that, fairly confident that he was too circumspect to press the issue.

“Oh. Well, should you change your mind, please don’t hesitate to tell me. You’ll always be welcome in my home.”

This was harder than I had thought. I couldn’t stand his smug attitude, the disgustingly sweet façade of the gentleman I knew him not to be. Worse than that, I had to act like some pretty little thing stupid enough to fall for it. “Thank you, you’re much too kind,” I finally forced out.

“Please, don’t mention it.”

We walked the rest of the path in silence, Lourens trailing slightly behind me — I’d be willing to bet money that he did so purely to shamelessly stare at my backside.

I stopped once the forest path segued into the village street, turning to him with a grateful smile. “I’ll safely find my way from here, thank you. Don’t let me keep you from your guests any longer.”

Lourens looked slightly disappointed, surely expecting to be invited inside or something along those lines. “This is awfully forward of me, but… Do you have any plans for tomorrow?”

“No, why?” I replied, carefully keeping my glee in check.

“I’d love to show you around, guide you through the sights and whatnot.”

“I’d like that, Lourens.”

“Wonderful! Shall we say noon, then? I’ll come meet you here.”

“Sounds perfect.”

Lourens leaned forward, eager to seal the deal with a kiss, but I was quicker than him. Taking a step back, I winked at him before briskly walking away.

—-

I was in love, once.

I was fifteen when I saw her for the first time. Mareike, the daughter of the cook, a graceful creature with long flaxen hair. She was beautiful, pure and simple.

Not knowing the first thing about women, I made the mistake of asking Gerrit for advice. Nothing wrong in that per se, except for the fact that Lourens somehow heard of it.

I fell sick before I’d even had a chance to talk to her, much less do any of the things Gerrit had suggested. A persistent fever, nothing life-threatening, but it confined me to my bed nonetheless. It was boring, just lying there with nothing to do and no one to talk to, and I passed the time with naïve little daydreams about Mareike.

I was slumbering when a slight dip in the bed awoke me. At first I just saw beautifully golden strands of hair, and my heart leapt into my throat. Then my vision cleared, and I saw it was Lourens.

“What do you want?” I croaked, struggling to sit up.

“Ah, Doob, always so courteous!”

Doob. The abhorred nickname he had bestowed upon me a couple of weeks after our first meeting. It had, to my great dislike — and probably because of my great dislike, stuck with me ever since.

“Dobhain,” I snapped, finally managing to get into an upright position. “My name is Dobhain!”

“Yes yes,” he said dismissively, pushing me back down without any effort at all.

I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping he’d get the clue and leave me in peace. Unsurprisingly he didn’t, instead talking about everything from the weather to how excited he was about his favorite mare foaling; stupid and pointless things — done purely to annoy me, no doubt.

After what felt like hours, I’d finally had enough. “Would you stop your chattering already?!”

He stopped mid-sentence, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Then, “That girl…”

“What?”

“That girl you like. Mareike.”

I stiffened, instinctively knowing that whatever he’d say next would be something I didn’t want to hear.

“I kissed her. She didn’t mind at all; even kissed me back. She’s my girlfriend now, I guess.”

I stared up at the ceiling, unblinking and still — not wanting to risk crying in front of him. But my eyes were strangely dry, despite the heated burn in my chest.

“I hate you.”

Lourens was quiet for a long time, not replying in any way. Finally he stood up, and headed for the door. “I feel the same way,” were his parting words, voice strangely subdued. I ascribed the odd tone to the disorienting fever, knowing that he must be feeling nothing but victorious.

—-

Lourens was waiting outside the inn the next day with two horses and a picnic basket. “I hope you can ride,” he smiled, handing me the reins for a horse I knew to be the calmest mare in the entire van Wieren stable.

I could, of course — just as well, if not better, than him. But that was probably not an attribute he wanted in his boys, no, he’d want a weak girlish thing who’d swoon if the horse so much as bucked a little; someone he could rescue like some perfect knight. The fact that he rode his favorite mount, the spirited stallion he’d brought up from a foal, said it all.

“I should be able to manage,” I said, shyly averting my eyes.

“I’ll catch you if you fall, don’t worry.”

Spoken like a true smarmy philanderer. I had to grit my teeth as I mounted up, fumbling a little bit with the stirrups just for show.

He urged his horse into a slow walk, keeping a watchful eye on me the entire time. I let the mare set the pace, like a fairly inexperienced rider would’ve done, and seemingly just concentrated on making sure she followed the pair in front.

“I assume you’ve seen enough of the village, so I thought we’d ride out to the coast. The view is really spectacular on a clear day like this.”

“I look forward to seeing it,” I lied.

It wasn’t very far to the beach, but riding there in a pace befitting a snail took long enough. Lourens swiftly dismounted once we reached the dunes, reaching over to take hold of my reins with one hand.

“Do you need any help?” he asked, starting to raise his other hand towards me.

I took the proffered hand, silently apologizing to the old mare for the clumsy dismount I was about to make. I had been expecting Lourens to try to take advantage of the situation, but he just steadied me before letting go — not touching me any longer than necessary.

“It is beautiful,” I said, not really lying this time.

“I’m glad you think so, I love the ocean.”

So had I, in another life. I often thought of my father; of what he’d think of the man I had become. This was the first time I felt that he would’ve been ashamed.

“Wiebe? Is something the matter?”

I shook my head, forcing a smile to my face. “No, of course not. I was just admiring the view.”

“You looked really sad.”

“Sad,” I laughed, a boisterous and ugly sound, “why would I be?”

Shrugging, Lourens tied the horses to a piece of large driftwood. “There could be plenty of reasons. The real question here, is if you are willing to tell me about it or not.”

Deep in thought and not quite realizing what I was saying, I softly asked, “But would you understand?”

“You won’t know until you’ve tried, sorry to say.”

It was a brutally honest answer, and one that brought me back to reality. “Forgive me, I’m just sprouting nonsense. Such bad behavior on a first date,” I said, hoping he’d latch on to that final word instead.

He frowned at first, but true to form he took the bait. “There’ll be plenty of chances for you to improve your behavior, I hope,” he grinned mischievously.

“I’m glad to hear that.”

—-

The next couple of days went by in a rush and a flurry of activity: acting the part of hard-to-get Wiebe — while making sure not to lapse into Dobhain-behavior again, visiting Jeltje for more potions, and trying to show my face at least once or twice at home.

It was our fourth date when things got really complicated.

It was a beautiful night. Lourens had taken me to a nearby field that was known to have plenty of fireflies frolicking during the summer. I hadn’t been there for a long time, and was naturally quite taken with the scene. So engrossed was I, that I didn’t properly react when he suddenly took hold of my chin, slowly angling my face up for a kiss.

It was careful and non-demanding, asking a silent question. And I don’t know why, but I answered.

Lourens broke the kiss first, but didn’t draw back. He just silently leaned his forehead against mine, gazing into my eyes. “I like your eyes,” he finally said.

I looked back at him, seeing a warm shade of gray in his eyes that I had never seen before. In that moment I hated him more than ever.

I turned around, not wanting to ruin everything by letting him see my true feelings. I was shaking all over and my throat was closing up, eyes stinging all the while — furious beyond words.

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to force it. I wanted to give you the time you needed and not rush you, but you just looked so…” Lourens trailed off, almost sounding sincerely repentant. But of course I knew better.

“Don’t apologize,” I replied, forcing my voice around the knot in my throat. “I’ve wanted that for a long time now, but have been concerned with your intentions.”

“My intentions?”

“You seem to be a popular man,” I prodded, hoping it wasn’t too soon to bring up this issue. “Perhaps you are just passing time with me.”

He opened his mouth, as if to immediately deny the accusation, but then shut it without saying a word.

“Lourens?”

“…I know it’ll sound awfully trite, but everything’s different with you.”

It did indeed sound trite; I hadn’t expected anything else from him. But then I saw the confusion and anguish in his eyes, and realized that he was telling the truth. Something twisted in my stomach, a feeling of having gotten what I’d wanted after all; he had begun to fall in love. Fall in love with Wiebe, who would soon twist the knife in his back. Things were going according to plan, but I had never expected that to be such a bitter feeling.

“I believe you,” I said softly, reaching up to touch his cheek. It was the first time I touched him like that, having kept my distance during all our dates so far. His skin was warm, sending an odd tingling sensation through my fingers.

“I almost wish you wouldn’t look at me like that,” Lourens groaned, a whimpering sound so unlike him.

“Like what?”

“Your eyes, they…” he trailed off, squeezing his eyes shut and roughly shaking his head. Before I had the chance to even think, he kissed me again — eyes still closed. It wasn’t gentle this time, a hard press of lips and an invading tongue that almost made my knees buckle from lack of air.

I was too busy keeping up the act to break free, but thankfully Lourens did the job for me. He more or less wrenched himself away, taking a step back while still keeping a hand on my shoulder; as if holding me back and ensuring our distance. A ridiculous notion, one that probably would’ve made me laugh if I hadn’t had such trouble catching my breath.

“I think I should escort you home now.” His voice was carefully blank and calm, but the shaking hand on my shoulder betrayed him.

I just nodded in reply, foregoing the pretense of being an inexperienced rider in favor of not being touched again.

—-

“I’m truly sorry,” Herr van Wieren said at dinner the following day. “I dislike not being there for your birthday, but I simply must attend this meeting. The same goes for Gerrit, as he will be the one to take over the business some day.”

“It’s perfectly all right,” Lourens replied. “I already said it to Mother when she went to visit her sister; I’m old enough that I won’t throw a tantrum over such a trifle. Besides,” he added, sending a look my way, “Doob will be here.”

I rolled my eyes at that, knowing full well that he had no wish to spend his birthday with me. Wiebe perhaps, but not me. He only said it to keep up the appearance of getting along with his adopted brother, that much was obvious.

But, to my great surprise, he didn’t want to spend it with Wiebe either.

We were taking a leisurely stroll through the village when I stealthily brought up the subject, making up a lie about having heard someone mentioning him having a birthday very soon.

“Oh,” he frowned. “Well, yes, it’s true. The day after tomorrow, as a matter of fact.”

“I hope it’s not presumptuous of me,” I fawned, “but would you like to celebrate it with me?”

“My apologies, but my family is very close; so I have to spend it in their company, as I have all other years.”

I felt like someone had slapped me. I knew that wasn’t true, but why would he lie to me? Wasn’t he falling in love with me, with the boy I had created solely to trick him? For him to lie in order to not have to spend his birthday with me… It didn’t bode well.

“I understand,” I finally managed to say. “I hope you’ll have a great day, then.”

“Thank you,” Lourens smiled, showing no outward sign of lying at all.

—-

“Doob! Wait, where are you going?”

Cursing silently to myself, I stopped. I had gotten up early, purely in the hopes of avoiding Lourens. Today was his birthday, and I had no intention of sticking around to see him invite a bunch of pretty boys to party with him. “Out,” I muttered.

“I can see that. Out where?”

“Anywhere you aren’t,” I snarled, stepping out the door and slamming it in his face.

I ran to the stables, picking the horse with the best mix of speed and stamina. I galloped away from the castle, trying to ignore the ache in my heart.

—-

It was dark when I finally returned. I had spent the entire day riding aimlessly, pushing the poor horse to his limit. The castle lay dark and desolate, hardly the scene of a party. Lourens must’ve taken the celebration elsewhere, perhaps opting to spend the day in bed with just one of his boys as opposed to being with them all. It made no difference either way.

I was walking from the stables when I spotted something lying in the middle of the garden. It was an unmistakably human form, lying on a small grassy hill and looking up at the stars. I slowly made my way over, and felt a strange sense of relief washing over me upon seeing it was Lourens.

“Hey,” he said. “I trust you had a good ride?”

I didn’t answer the rhetorical question, too busy taking in his appearance. He was dressed very simply, nothing like his usual look. Even his hair was loose, splayed under his head like a halo.

“What are you doing?” I finally asked.

“Watching the clouds. And, now, the stars.”

“…You’ve been out here all day?”

“Indeed. It looked like it was going to rain earlier, swallows flying low and all that, but it never did.”

“I see,” I drawled, feeling utterly bewildered. Why had he lied to Wiebe for this? Not sure what else to do, I sat down next to him.

Lourens turned his head, watching me silently.

“Stop it. Why do you always have to stare at me?”

“Am I not allowed to look at my little brother?” Lourens asked, infuriatingly calm.

“I’ve felt your damn eyes on me ever since I came here! Always staring and keeping track of me, as if you were afraid I’d abscond with the silver.”

He actually had the nerve to laugh. Having had quite enough, I started to get up. His hand immediately shot out, grasping my forearm with enough force to keep me sitting.

“Let go of me.”

“Only if you promise to stay. I’ll go back to looking at the stars, if that’s what it takes.”

“So desperate for company that you’d even settle for me, huh? Fine. I’ll stay, so get your hand off me.”

He let go, letting his arm fall to the grass and closing the space between us. Sighing, I lay down. I might as well make myself comfortable, if I was going to be out here anyway.

Somewhere between Orion’s belt and Aldebaran, I fell asleep.

—-

Something was tickling my face.

Groggily, I opened my eyes. Lourens was hovering above me, one arm on each side of my face. His hair was glowing in the moonlight, like spun silver.

He was looking at me with the same warm gleam he’d had when kissing Wiebe for the first time, and I knew I must be dreaming.

A thought confirmed by Lourens leaning down to softly kiss my lips. I wrapped an arm around his neck, burying my fingers in his long hair. He let out a low moan when I did that, deepening the kiss in reply.

He pulled back in order to move, straddling me and starting to unbutton my shirt. The cold night air hit my exposed skin the same second I noticed the hard bulge pushing into my own groin. This was very much reality; no dream at all.

With a strangled scream I shot up, hitting his chin with my forehead. He yelped, but I couldn’t care less if I’d hurt him or not. I pushed him completely off me, getting to my feet and breaking into a run.

I heard Lourens shouting something after me, but the words didn’t register. All I wanted was to get as far away from him as possible, him and the strange emotions that had taken over my entire being.

—-

I woke up the next morning, deep in the forest and with a very sore back.

Refusing to think about what had happened last night, I stood up and oriented myself before making my way towards Jeltje’s cabin.

She greeted me with a smile as I stepped in. “What’s happened?” she asked, gesturing towards my dirty clothes and the doubtless haggard look on my face.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I only came to say that I’m done, done with all of this. Thank you for your help, you’ve been most kind.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Have you told him the truth yet? Betrayed his love and broke his heart, and so forth.”

“No. But it doesn’t matter, I just can’t do this anymore.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Just stop it!” I felt so torn and conflicted that I could barely take it. I buried my face in my hands, trying to get a hold of myself before I said something I’d truly regret.

“Listen,” Jeltje ordered, having moved close enough to whisper in my ear. “I will give you one last dose of the potion. You’ll take it when the sun’s gone down today. Spend the day getting cleaned up, get some rest, and buy something beautiful to wear. Then, go to him. Do what you planned all along; don’t let all our work go to waste. Do you understand?”

I shivered, sick to my stomach. “Y-yes, I understand.”

“Good.”

—-

I knocked on the castle door, feeling grateful for the first time that no one except Lourens would be home.

I had to knock three more time before the door opened. Lourens stood there, disheveled and with dark shadows under his eyes.

“So it’s you,” he said, eyes narrowing.

I suddenly forgot what I was going to say, the lines I had rehearsed during the day gone thanks to that look. “I… I was worried about you.”

Lourens didn’t reply, turning in the door and walking back inside. But he left the door open, and that was as good as any verbal invitation.

“Is something the matter?” I ventured once inside, following Lourens as he walked through the hallway.

“You can say that again.”

“Please tell me. I’d like to help if I can… I care for you, deeply.”

He stopped dead in his tracks, but didn’t turn around to face me. “Then, tell me the truth.”

Hesitating, I decided to go out on a limb despite his seeming aversion to Wiebe. “The truth is that I love you.”

Lourens bent his head, chuckling low and without any real joy. “And I love you too.”

My heart skipped a beat upon hearing that my plan had worked after all.

“So,” Lourens continued, turning around to face me, “shall we give this charade a worthy finale?”

“Wha–” I began, but was cut off by Lourens laying claim to my lips. Rough and demanding, I couldn’t resist when he pulled back only to drag me along, all the way to his bedroom.

He shoved me onto the bed, getting undressed without taking his eyes off me.

“Lourens,” I gasped, “please don’t. I…”

“You shouldn’t play games unless you are willing to take the consequences,” he said as he began to tear at my clothes, voice cruel and cold.

The buttons of my shirt went flying, spilling on the bed and floor. Panicked, I swung my fist at him. But Lourens just palmed it with a smirk, tugging my arm down until it connected with his hard manhood.

“Don’t look so shocked, Wiebe. A beautiful boy like you must’ve had plenty of suitors. I’m sure you know how things work.”

I thrashed under him, but I had no strength in this body. And the way he touched me, it just robbed me of what little self-control that I’d had. It took me a while to realize that the needy mewls were coming from me.

Inexperienced as I was, it didn’t take him long to bring me to my release. I came all over his hand, a white substance that he then smeared on my bottom. One of his fingers slipped inside me, a strange feeling that I had been unprepared for. A second joined the first, filling me even more. By the time he had a third digit inserted I felt like I possibly couldn’t take any more; it hurt but at the same time it felt good.

I couldn’t stop the disappointed whimper escaping my throat when he pulled them out, something that apparently served to amuse Lourens — if the smile on his face was anything to go by.

He lifted one of my legs, hooking the knee over his shoulder. Same thing with the other leg, and then he ran a sticky hand down my raised spine. “Relax,” he whispered as I felt a blunt hardness pressing into me. It hurt, hurt so much that I wished he’d speed up and stop going so torturously slow; anything to make this over and done with already.

Lourens gave one last push, now inside of me to the hilt. I felt so filled that I barely dared to breathe for fear of bursting. And then he began to move. A jolt went through me, snapping my head backwards and pulling a moan from my throat. I lost all sense of time and space, forgot that I wasn’t supposed to want this. I pushed back towards him when he thrust, hands clawing at his chest.

His eyes rolled back in his head, and I could feel his release inside of me. He fell on top of me, body shaking and covered in sweat. Without really meaning to, my hand went up to smooth away a couple of stray strands of hair that were stuck to his forehead. Lourens buried his face in the crook of my neck, falling asleep within minutes.

Exhausted to the bone — and not wanting to disturb his rest — I, too, let sleep take me.

—-

I woke to the persistent chirping of birds. Lourens was already awake, lying on his side and silently watching me. He immediately lowered his eyes when he saw I wasn’t sleeping anymore. “I never meant for it to be like this,” he said, voice breaking.

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “Neither did I.”

He didn’t say anything else, and neither did I. There was no time for us to talk anyway; dawn was coming, which meant I had to leave before the potion stopped working. I swung a leg over the edge of the bed, gritting my teeth against the pain.

“Don’t go,” Lourens asked, reaching out for me but stopping short of actually touching me.

“I have to,” I responded, “the sun will soon be up and I…”

“I promise you, nothing will change if you stay.”

“W-what do you mean?” I stuttered, not liking the way he’d said that.

“It’s not too late, we can still make this right. Do-”

“No!” I shot up from bed, grabbing my clothes before bolting out the door — refusing to hear him finish what he’d begun saying.

—-

If I hadn’t been so upset I would’ve seen the signs. As it were, I passed by the rooting without a second thought — until I stood face to face with a sow and her piglets.

The boar stood with her back to me, and I froze dead in my tracks. Any hopes of being able to make my escape without being noticed was shattered when she raised her head, snout bobbing up and down as she caught wind of my scent.

I turned, breaking into a dead run, but not before I had seen her whirl around; all beady eyes and horrible tusks. I could hear her chasing after me, furiously grunting and growling.

I ran back down the path, lungs burning and heart beating loud enough to echo in my ears. I could almost feel her warm breath on my legs, death closing in.

Then I saw Lourens, and my heart seized painfully. He was jogging up the path, probably having run after me. He stopped when he saw me running towards him, a confused frown marring his features. Then, for some inexplicable reason, he raced towards me.

“Boar,” I yelled, not having the air to scream ‘Run the other way, you idiot!’ — hoping he’d understand the warning nonetheless.

But he didn’t seem to react, just kept heading straight for me. We collided, him shoving me to the side with a shouted order of “Tree!” and then pushing me in front of him; effectively shielding my back.

His hand disappeared for a split second, followed by the sound of spraying gravel. Terrified that Lourens had been gored, I snapped my head around to look over my shoulder. He was still there, though pale and in obvious pain. I reached back to grab his hand, never breaking my pace, making sure he didn’t fall behind when we climbed the tree.

We more or less leapt up it, and then sat there shaking as the sow ripped a long tear in the trunk. One of her tusks was covered in blood.

“Where did she get you?!” I yelled, hysteria making me tighten my grip on him even more.

“Leg,” he grunted, reaching a shaky hand towards his calf.

Not daring to move down the tree with the sow still raging at the bottom, I helped him move a bit higher up so that I could get a good look at the wound. It was an ugly cut, deep and curving upwards — it was a miracle that he’d been able to stay on his feet. Though that wouldn’t matter unless I could stem the steady flow of blood pouring out the wound.

I ripped off one of the sleeves of my shirt, noting with a detached kind of realization that my clothes were too tight on my now muscular body — the potion had stopped working.

I bandaged his calf as good as I could, but the blood seeped through white cloth almost immediately, dyeing it a bright red. And in that instant it all came crashing down on me, everything at once.

“Why did you do it? What were you thinking, to get between me and the boar like that! Why didn’t you just run away?!”

Lourens laughed, an affectionate look in his glazed eyes. “Oh Doob, you always were slow.”

“This is no time for your customary mocking! What is that supposed to mean, and… damn it all, how long have you known?”

“Right from the start.”

“What?!” My yelling had made the sow attack the tree even more viciously, but despite knowing that I just couldn’t stop myself.

“The way you stood, that first day, off in the distance and watching the party without joining us — it was so typical of you. I thought I was mistaken when I then saw your appearance, but really… The way you moved, the things you said when you didn’t have your guard up, and your eyes, your eyes especially; like the stormy blue ocean. With them, there was no doubt.”

I felt like I was going to be sick. My revenge had backfired on me, in every possible way. Nothing had been real, not even his feelings for Wiebe; just another cruel joke he had played on me.

“I hate you,” I whispered. But I knew, for the first time, that it wasn’t true. At all.

Lourens looked like he was going to reply, but whatever he’d meant to say got cut off by the boar ramming the tree hard enough for us to almost fall off. I held on to him, desperately so, not knowing if he would have the strength to stay put on his own.

His head fell limply on shoulder, resting in a way that was achingly similar to the way he’d spent last night. I ran a hand down his back, forcing myself to glance down. His leg was still bleeding, dripping down on the ground and probably only serving to infuriate the sow even more.

“I’m going to make a run for it.”

“W-what?” Lourens croaked, barely managing to raise his head.

“You’ll bleed to death if we stay like this.”

“I won’t,” he scoffed, “but you’ll die for sure if you go.”

“I’ll run even faster now. And if I don’t make it, well, at least I will have given you a fighting chance. You can try to get to the village or–”

“No! We will both stay here, until the boar is gone.”

“You’ll die!” I yelled. “You’ll die and it’s all my fault and I… I…”

“Now there’s something I never thought I’d see again.”

“Huh?” I blinked at him, trying to get my eyes to focus.

“You’re crying. I’ve only see that once before.”

“I’ve never cried in front of you,” I muttered, wiping at my eyes.

“You have. The first time we met.”

Frowning, I realized he was right. “But how did you see that? It was–”

“Raining, right?” Lourens quipped. “You honestly think some rain would hide your red eyes and snotty nose? And the fact that you kept sniveling didn’t exactly help matters.”

“Why do you always have to be like that?! I know you can’t stand me, but must you be so damned cruel?”

Stand you? Doob, Doob, Doob,” he laughed, “I love you. I fell in love with you that very day, seeing you standing like a drenched rat on our doorstep.”

I just stared at him, mouth agape and with no words whatsoever.

“I was just a child, you know. I didn’t even understand my own feelings, much less knew how to express them. And when I did understand, I also knew that I could never act on it. Adopted or not, you’re still my little brother. But I never could stop loving you, and when you came to me — apparently intent on seducing me…”

“No!” I spluttered, mind reeling but somehow still having the composure to react to such a wrongful assumption. “I never meant to seduce you, I just… I just wanted to make you fall in love and then — I don’t know — I’d leave you in the worst possible way, or something.”

“And what, if I may ask, was that supposed to accomplish?”

“What difference does that make now?” I snapped, trying to not acknowledge that I felt utterly sheepish just thinking about it. “If what you just said is true, if you really feel that way about me, then why would you surround yourself by all those boys?”

Lourens shook his head, a small smile flitting over his lips. “Must you really ask? They were a pointless attempt to sway my feelings away from you. Those boys were nothing like you; neither in manner nor looks.”

Mind reeling, I didn’t respond in favor of instead staring at the boar. She had begun to look calmer, just walking to and fro instead of actively trying to topple the tree.

“Quiet,” I whispered, “I think she might be about to leave.”

Lourens just sighed, slumping forward to lean on me again.

Finally, the boar walked away. A feeling of relief washed over me, and I couldn’t stop myself from impulsively embracing Lourens. He returned the clasp, arms encircling my waist.

“You’re not giving me false hope, now are you?” he asked, bending his head to press a kiss on the top of my head.

I didn’t move away or otherwise respond, not even when Lourens continued to kiss his way down my face; forehead, nose, and then finally stopping just short of my mouth. “May I?” he asked, a mere whisper, but still enough for the words to tingle and tickle my lips.

I almost felt like I was running again, lightheaded and with my heart racing. I didn’t have the peace of mind to respond, so instead I just closed the final distance between us; kissing him just as passionately as he was kissing me.

—-

“You can put your mind at ease,” the healer said as soon as he stepped out of the bedroom. “He might sustain a limp, but aside from that he will be fine.”

Upon hearing that, I finally allowed myself to relax. I hadn’t slowed down, even for a second, since we’d kissed in the tree.

I had broken the contact with a regretful smile, telling him to stay where he was until I returned with a horse. Then I’d run back home, telling one of the stable boys to fetch the best healer while I rode out to get Lourens. Pale as a ghost when I arrived, he’d barely managed to keep his eyes open as I brought him home as carefully as I possibly could — making sure not to jar his leg.

Keeping vigil over his bedside while waiting for the healer, Lourens had kept giving me this smile; a tired and weak smile, but so infinitely happy and content that it just broke my heart. I’d tried to return it somehow, both the smile and the love he so clearly exuded, but I failed miserably. Jeltje’s words had echoed in my mind; of the price I would have to pay.

But now, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief. “Thank you,” I said to the healer, thrusting his payment into his waiting hands.

He nodded his thanks. “Make sure he stays in bed; he’s lost a lot of blood and can’t risk reopening the wound. He needs rest above all else.”

“I understand. Please return tomorrow,” I said, already opening the door — needing to see Lourens.

His eyes opened when I entered, a slow smile spreading over his face like the sun. “Hello,” he whispered.

“Hey. Get some sleep, you hear?”

“Mm, you too.” He raised the corner of the blanket, obviously indicating for me to join him in bed.

“I might accidentally bump your leg. Besides, there’s not enough room.”

“We managed just fine last night. So, come,” he leered.

Giving him a mock-exasperated sigh, I crept into bed.

“I can hardly believe this is happening,” Lourens said, taking hold of my hand and squeezing it.

I returned the squeeze. “I know, me too. But I’m glad that it is.”

Lourens smiled, eyes full of affection. “The same goes for me, Doob.”

I fell asleep — despite his annoyingly adorable snoring — feeling like I had finally come home.

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