The Tale Of The Crimson Cloak

by Critical Strike

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/65922.html)

As a child I never feared the Great Forest. There were all manner of tales told of the dark woods surrounding my hometown that were meant to frighten children into good behavior, to keep them in line. Oh, I was told those tales as well as any other child of our village, but they fascinated me, not terrified me. My mother and father learned early I was daring and bold, but since I had enough wit to be cautious when necessary, they did not restrain me as other children were restrained.

Mother gave me a riding cloak, one she made by hand, and I treasured it. It was a vibrant crimson that when combined with my long reddish-orange hair made my head seem crowned in flame. I swore to always wear it, for it was beautiful and warm, with a generous hood to protect from wind and rain. Father taught me to defend myself, and when I was old enough, he gave me a knife, a little silver dagger with a short sharp blade.

He told me that I should always carry with me, especially when I went to ride, for he knew I would inevitably wish to ride into the forest. The last things my parents said to me every time I rode off to the Great Forest were, “Be safe,” and “We love you,” and I never once failed to say it back.

My grandmother lived on the other side of the woods. She was ill, a sickness that forced her to live apart from the village, lest it spread. I had contracted it once as a child, but somehow, my young body fought it off, and now I was in no danger from it. It was this and my sheer boldness that elected me to be the one to visit her, to bring her food and drink, and to care for her.

I rode off into the wood, confident as ever, my dagger tucked into my boot, and my crimson cloak about my shoulders, the hood thrown defiantly back. The weather was pleasant, the sky nearly cloudless, and so there was no need to wear it up.

It was late afternoon when I started out; the ride to Grandmother’s never took longer than an hour. I never feared being caught at night, for I’d reach there easily, spend the night at Grandmother’s, then return the following day. But today, something was different.

Less than one half hour into my ride, the sky started darkening swiftly. Clouds that hadn’t been there before suddenly appeared and blocked out the sun. They were thick, heavy, dark clouds that could only mean a storm, and a fearsome one at that. I cursed to myself and kicked my horse, riding faster, hoping to beat the rain, but I didn’t succeed. The rain fell heavily, downpours turning the dirt of the woods into mud immediately. My horse’s footing grew less sure, our visibility strained. My hood was up now, the only bright color in the dark forest, bright crimson against a grey-black sky. It was so dark, the trees themselves seemed black. I had no sense now of how much time was passing as we carefully picked our way along the path.

It could well have been late evening by now, the moon risen behind the cloudy rainy sky. As if to prove me right, the moon chose then to peek through the clouds, shining down into the woods, giving me enough light to see by. It was then I felt a strange sense of unease creeping over me, a prickly feeling at the base of my neck, spreading down between my shoulder blades. You must know the feeling, the one you get when you know someone’s watching you?

I whipped my head around, left, right, squinting through the dark and rain, but I saw nothing. And then I heard it, footfalls off in the dark, some kind of creature. It sounded something like a wolf, but larger and heavier, and yet not as large as a bear. There was just something different about it. Lightning crashed overhead, and I caught a glimpse of dark shape; it made my blood run cold. What I saw was nothing normal.

I kicked my horse again, but I didn’t need to. His nostrils had flared and he was galloping full force, trying to outrun whatever it was I’d seen, what he’d smelled, what was still chasing us. It was getting closer now; it gained on us no matter how fast we galloped, twisting around fallen tree limbs, and my horse’s hoofbeats drowned out what little sound the beast made.

But I knew it was there. It was hungry. It wouldn’t be denied. I could hear it again now, growling, howling, a kind of sound that filled me to the brim with the kind of fear I expect most people felt about the woods.

Fear can cloud one’s mind, and so it was with me. I knew the way to Grandmother’s backwards and forwards, but with a creature I couldn’t name hunting me, I made mistakes. I made a wrong turn at a fork, and then another, and another, trying desperately to find my way back to the route that would take me either to Grandmother’s or back home.

I didn’t know where I was and that thing, oh that thing, was getting closer, closer. Heart beating in my ears, thumping, pulsing, we ran, blind now as the rain drove full force into us, a sheet of water that had me drenched to the bone, and shivering cold.

It was getting more and more dangerous. I did not know the path in this part of the woods, and neither I nor my horse saw the dip up ahead one that was not so much dip as small trench. It would have been easy to jump over, had we seen it in time. As it was my horse’s foreleg came down hard in the deepest part of the trench, and we both fell. I heard a sickening sort of crack just before the thunder crashed loud and knew with utter certainty my horse’s leg was broken. And we were both in trouble.

I drew my knife. It was the only thing I could do and crouched, waiting, knowing the beast was near. It was only a moment before I heard it, growling low, before I saw it, the dark shape, on all fours, but large, so much larger than a wolf. I couldn’t make out anything more detailed — perhaps I should have been glad of that — before it leaped at me. I threw up my arm in defense, knife point in its direction, but it landed not on me, but on my horse, and I got a glimpse of razor sharp teeth before it tore my horse’s throat out.

I screamed and swung my knife, an immediate visceral reaction, but I knew my little silver dagger would do nothing against a creature so large unless I was very lucky. I know I did not connect with it and yet it flinched and drew back from its meal, fangs covered in my horse’s blood. I jabbed toward it again and again it flinched, not quite stepping back, but clearly aware of danger.

And then it licked its muzzle, and it was as if the taste of blood gave it new strength. It howled and swung at me, harder than I thought possible; it knocked the knife from my hand and pushed me away, down to the ground.

A dizzying greyness swept over my vision and the last thing I could remember was a horrible crunching sound as jaws tore back into horse flesh, and strangely — for whose were they? — a pair of human eyes. And then everything went black.

——

I woke up, head pounding, confused and disoriented. I was in the woods, just off the path, lying wrapped in my cloak – which was dry. So was I, from head to toe. The remains of a fire were nearby, and there was no sign of my horse or of the creature. I sat up, eyes wide.

I was back on the path we’d first strayed from, not far from Grandmother’s. That was only part of my confusion. It was daylight; the sun was just creeping over the horizon, and there was a man with dark brown hair, wearing clothes typical of a woodsman, and he was sitting barely five feet away from me.

I yelped, not knowing who he was or what he wanted, and I went immediately for my knife. My knife! Where was it? And then I remembered the beast — it had knocked it from my hand, hadn’t it? — before I struck my head on something, probably a rock. I reached for the spot gingerly, and found it not sticky with blood, but instead bandaged.

“I won’t hurt you,” the man said, quietly, eyes fixed on my face.

“Who the hell are you?” I blurted, my mouth moving faster than my brain could keep up. I couldn’t help pulling away, wrapping myself in my cloak. It was torn at the edges, having caught multiple times on branches and roots, and maybe claws as well. The memory of what had happened was unclear.

“My name is Arnold,” the man said helpfully.

I very nearly responded with “How unfortunate for you.” I was later happy I bit my tongue in reply; he seemed a bit of a simpleton, the way he stared at me. I felt a rush of that tolerating patience one feels when speaking with the slow or very young children. Instead of snapping more questions at him, I replied, “My name is Remi.”

He smiled at me and then offered, “I fixed your head. It was bleeding. And I think this is yours.” He held out my little silver knife and I reached for it, slowly, as if afraid he might try to use it on me. But I didn’t need to worry. The man — Arnold — looked uncomfortable, not at all dangerous, and I wondered how much he had seen. Had he seen the creature? Had he saved me from it?

“Thank you,” I said primly and stood, dusting myself off.

Arnold stood just as quickly, as if to head me off, gathering up an ax and a few pieces of wood, perhaps for firewood. “Are you leaving?” he asked. His eyes, deep and brown, looked into my own green ones, and I felt an odd little tug, something both familiar and new. I tried to grasp at the familiar, but it slipped away, like a trout in the hands of an inexperienced fisherman.

“Yes,” I said brusquely. “I must continue through these woods. To–” and I stopped speaking. It occurred to me he was a stranger who, while he had tended my wound, and likely saved my life, had no reason to know of my grandmother’s cottage, or that that was my destination.

“To the house there, near the widest part of the stream?” He pointed in the direction of Grandmother’s, and I squinted at him.

“How did you know?”

“I hunt. And get firewood there. And I have chopped some wood there for the nice lady who lives there.” He held up what he was holding. “This is for her. Oh, and I fought a wolf near there once. And I’ve seen you go there before.” He looked a little pleased, proud, and embarrassed all at once, and I smiled in spite of myself. He was such an honest man; there was no guile in those serious eyes, no hesitancy in how he spoke.

I felt that tolerating patience again and said, “A wolf? Would you tell me the tale? I have a bit of a walk now that–” I swallowed, “–my horse has gone missing, and I could use the company.”

His face lit up, and I knew I had asked him something that made him happy. Well, so much the better. The arrangement was to both our benefits: he could escort me, keep me safe if anything struck again, and I could keep him company. Why he seemed to want it, I had no idea. But he told me the story as we walked.

“It was maybe four moons ago. I came out to chop some wood for the lady–”

“My grandmother,” I interjected softly. If he knew her, he might as well know who I was to her.

“Yes, your grandmother, and I heard something, like a creature growling, and I saw it.” Arnold spoke slowly, as if he were thinking hard on each word before he set it free. It was almost as though he were struggling a bit to remember. I thought that odd, especially since he had said it had happened only a few moons ago.

“It looked like a wolf, but it was a lot bigger,” he continued. “It looked mean and angry, and was sniffing like it smelled food. It was going to the house! So I got my ax, a nice big silver one I bought and went to go stop it.” Arnold paused there and took a breath before continuing. “And we fought. It was really big and bit me, scraped at my chest. I still have scars, but I killed it, and saved the lady. Your grandmother.”

I blinked at Arnold as he spoke. My grandmother had not told me this tale, surely for fear of my thinking her in danger in these woods. “Arnold, thank you for saving her.” But that wasn’t all that I was thinking.

His tale niggled at me. That wolf he had described, had it been like the creature that had attacked me? There was something there I was missing, but it eluded me, and so for the time being, I let the matter drop, instead asking more about him.

He told me about himself eagerly. He lived in a very small cottage of his own, one he proudly stated he built himself. It was past the stream, behind Grandmother’s, farther away from town. I did not know the area; I had never once gone deeper in the woods past Grandmother’s. He’d lived with his mother, but she died, of the same illness my grandmother now suffered. “I had it too, when I was younger. I got better though, but she didn’t. I don’t know why.”

I started in surprise. Someone else with that same resistance to the illness? It was rare in town; few who had caught it lived, and a great part of town had once had to be quarantined because of it. No wonder he ran errands for Grandmother in my absence; he was one of very few people who would not get sick.

I found myself starting to warm to him, starting to push aside my own feelings of intellectual superiority and arrogance. I was well-read, schooled, intelligent. He was simple, hard-working, earnest. We differed a great deal, but still I found him increasingly charming, more so as the days passed.

——

I learned nothing more then of the beast Arnold had killed, nor did I on my next few visits to Grandmother’s. I came to realize, though I never thought it would be so, that I was growing to fear the Great Forest. Even when I made it safely to Grandmother’s, I could swear that creature was still out there waiting. It had caught my scent and it refused to let go. I was prey to some unknown beast and for the first time in my life, I felt real fear.

Despite my growing apprehensions, I continued to travel via the woods to make my visits, though I tended to leave earlier in the afternoon to be certain I was not out at night. On those days I would often meet Arnold again. He would greet me with increasingly wide smiles and accompany me on my way. We would spread a blanket out on the grass outside Grandmother’s, after she grew too tired to be able to keep company with me. I’d step back outside and find Arnold waiting. It grew harder to hide my joy at seeing him each time he appeared again.

Without fail every night, we’d part around sunset. He never asked me why I feared the night; I assumed he knew about the beast that had attacked me, especially if he had once killed one. I never once stopped to think he might have had his own reason to leave before night fell.

Despite my fears, I found myself happier, growing happier in Arnold’s company. My grandmother seemed to like him, especially since she knew she had no need to fear him catching her illness. For the first time I could remember, I was deeply, truly happy.

But not everything was happy and bright. Deep inside I knew the creature was still out there, and I feared it would make its way to Grandmother’s and hurt her. After a maybe a moon of these visits I finally explained to Arnold my growing concerns and worries. He was silent through my whole story, and when I described the creature in detail, his face grew worried.

“It sounds just like the thing I killed. There must be another one now. I had only seen one before. I wonder where it came from?” He seemed genuinely puzzled, and I almost felt bad for ruining a perfectly pleasant afternoon.

“I don’t know what it is, Arnold. I just worry about Grandmother.”

“You’re not worried about yourself?” The query came as Arnold reached behind his back, hiding his hands from me.

“No,” I said, more truthfully than I realized. “I know you’ll keep me safe.” I clapped my hand over my mouth immediately, my cheeks going nearly as red as my hair. I hadn’t meant to say that, despite its truth.

I caught the look on Arnold’s face and seeing his hands behind him, and finding a subject change within reach, immediately asked, “What is that? What do you have there behind you?”

Arnold, with a charming smile showed me his hands and in them was a single wildflower. It was red and orange, much like my hair and I took it, a smile creeping onto my face.

I could think of nothing else to say but thank you, and so I did, leaning forward to leave a kiss on Arnold’s cheek. He colored immediately, as red as I had been, and I realized then just how much he did seem to like me, more than I had realized.

And I had to admit to myself, I was growing fonder and fonder of him.

——

I let myself fall into a sense of security. It was a mistake, I know, but everything had been going so well. Even Grandmother seemed to be doing much better. She stayed awake longer, kept us company by her window, and even teased me gently about Arnold. I would blush furiously and deny everything, but inside I wondered if it was really so obvious. And would other people accept us as we were as easily as she did?

It wasn’t smiled upon in small towns for two men to show the kind of interest in each other Arnold and I showed. At best they were gossiped about, and worse, thrown out of town, beaten or even killed. But Grandmother seemed not to care. Perhaps that was part of what made me lower my guard.

The attack came, of course, when I least expected it. It was past midnight, and I was asleep at Grandmother’s. She must have heard the sounds outside well before I did. I woke up to hear a thin-sounding scream, the kind made by someone with not enough strength in their lungs.

I scrambled to my feet, grabbed my little knife, and ran for the sounds. I knew what was making them and my heart was pounding in my ears. It was that creature, I knew it. I could hear its growls, its claws scraping, and its heavy weight as it landed after a leap. Grandmother!

They were outside. She was outside swinging something at it; I squinted and saw it was a piece of wood, far thicker than I expected my grandmother to be able to wield. She was yelling at the creature, her voice reedy and fearful, but very angry. “Back! Back, beast! You’ll not have him like this!”

I flung myself outside after them, my night-shirt bright white in the moonlight that shone down. It illuminated both my grandmother in her nightgown and the creature she tried to keep at bay. “Grandmother!” I yelled and moved, running to place myself between the beast and her. For the first time, in all the moons it had been terrifying me, I finally got a very good look at it.

It had reared up on it hind legs and stood a good eight feet tall. It was powerfully muscled, broad and wide, with deep brown fur that covered every inch of its body, except for a series of parallel scars across its chest. Some time ago it must have been injured, badly, for these were healing scars that had once been deep and wide cuts. I stared at it in terror, but I stood my ground.

“No, Remi, no! Get back inside!” Grandmother begged, but her body almost sagged in relief and I stood there with my silver knife brandished. Again the beast caught sight of it and growling, flinched back. At that point I still didn’t know why a creature so large, so strong, so powerful should shy away from so small a weapon.

We all stayed like that, poised, waiting for something to happen. I was sure the beast would attack; I certainly reeked of fear, and Grandmother was frail and weak. We would be such easy pickings.

I thrust my hand forward, waving my knife, and though my hand shook, my voice was forceful. “Go on, get out of here! Before– before I hurt you!” I didn’t expect it to believe me, if it could even understand me. I certainly didn’t believe myself.

But, strangely enough, it flinched back again, staring at me with those eyes, and as the moon slowly started to slip behind the clouds, it howled and turned, running back into the thick woods.

I nearly sagged to the ground with relief but there were more pressing matters. “Grandmother, are you all right?”

Her eyes were wide and starting, and they fixed on me with an expression I couldn’t read. “Yes, Remi, just please, take me inside.”

I didn’t stop to question anymore, not even the odd thing she’d said as I first ran out. Instead I helped her back inside, back to her bed. I fussed over her for some time before she finally shooed me off to my own bed.

I lay back down, but sleep was slow to come. Instead I lay awake remembering the creature, how it seemed scared, not of me, or grandmother, but of my little knife. I thought about how it stared at me, with those human eyes, eyes that now seemed oddly familiar, before it ran off again.

And I remembered what grandmother had said, her shouting at it “You’ll not have him like this!” She could only mean me, but if it wanted me, why did it try to attack her? Why did it run from me when I brandished my near-useless knife? Or was it because the moonlight had started to fade that it made an escape?

I had plenty of questions, and not even one answer. I rolled over onto my side and closed my eyes. After an hour, I finally slipped off into a dreamless, disturbed night’s sleep.

I told Arnold about it the next day, and he wanted to stand guard the next time I stayed at Grandmother’s overnight. I tried to dissuade him, but he laid an earnest hand on mine and would not be swayed. Thinking now he might be the creature’s victim, I worried for my next visit to Grandmother’s.

——

It was there again. My next visit to Grandmother’s and I had been safe inside well before dark. But it was still there, out in the woods. I left the safety of the cottage, armed with my knife, a move I knew was well beyond foolish. I had no real excuse for why I did so, and to this day still cannot think of why. I headed into the woods, a bit of a ways from Grandmother’s. I didn’t know where Arnold was. He was supposed to be standing guard, but he was nowhere to be found. At first I feared for him, but then I realized, I’d heard no screams, no sounds of a fight, and certainly there was no body of my dear Arnold lying anywhere in sight. Wherever he was, he had not been hurt by the beast.

I could hear it: heavy panting breaths, cracking branches, low growls. I could see it: tall dark form, dark colored fur, even in full moonlight, sharp claws, and fangs that dripped, blood, saliva, and I didn’t want to know what else. Worse, I could see those terrifyingly human eyes that fixed themselves firmly on me.

Maybe I had a suspicion. Maybe I was brave. But likely I was merely foolish for seeking it out. It wanted me, I knew it. But it didn’t want to hurt me. Even after its attack on Grandmother, when she had tried so vainly to protect me, keep me from its grasp, it did not harm me. It wanted me, but I knew not what for.

I stepped forward and it growled, baring fangs, a clear warning not to come closer. Fear turned the taste in my mouth to bile and I froze, but it did not. It slowly approached and I brandished my little silver knife. My knife! It didn’t seem as though such a thing could hurt him, logically.

But I had heard tales, so many tales of fright and terror growing up. It was not the weapon the beast feared. It was the material it was made of, the silver. And I knew why. Why such a beast could retain such human-looking eyes, and as I stepped closer, I saw they were eyes I knew, and by now, knew well.

I could feel it as the color drained from my face; I dropped the knife and moved forward on pure instinct. The creature stepped back, more in confusion that anything else and I laid a shaking hand on its grisly jaw. “Arnold?”

The deep-set serious brown eyes looked at me, and in them I saw the simple, plain, earnest woodsman I had to admit I had been growing so fond of. The creature stepped back and howled, a plaintive wounded sort of sound, and started to shiver.

It curled in on itself and when it finally stopped crouching I saw that its fur and teeth and claws had all receded, slowly. Fur had shrunk back to mere hair, thick and dark brown. Claws shortened to nails, fangs to teeth, and frightful eight-foot-tall beastly build to a six-foot-tall man I knew well, a man who seemed more confused than anything.

Little did I notice the darkness creeping through the wood at the same time, for the moon, shining and bright, had slipped behind a bank of clouds so thick and heavy it blotted out its pale light before the change had even begun.

Arnold, however, seemed to notice nothing but me. “Remi? What– what are you– What am I doing here?”

I shook my head mutely. It was like something from a storybook, and I’d read enough of those to know what I should do. I placed my hands on either side of Arnold’s face, drawing him to me, and kissed him soundly.

I was surprised by my own actions, and apparently so was he. But that didn’t stop him. He was hesitant at first but then his hands circled my waist and suddenly it was as though he became a different person entirely. His kiss was suddenly hungry, passionate, almost demanding and aggressive. I should have pushed away, I should have wanted to push away but instead somehow it fueled a fire in me that I’d never felt before.

I think on some level I knew exactly what was going on, or at least I like to think I did. I can’t really explain otherwise why I responded with such like enthusiasm. I had very little experience in matters of sex; I merely knew that women of the village never interested me so much as the men, and there were few men who shared my interest. Arnold definitely did, I knew. He was practically courting me by now. His interest in me was clear enough from the way his hands slid over my body, pushing me down onto the soft grass beneath us.

He seemed less the simple woodsman now, and more a man who knew what he wanted and how to get it. His hands easily undid the ties of my cloak, leaving it spread beneath us both like a blanket. The same hands — I had never noticed how large they were, how skilled, how rough-palmed and strong — slid just as easily under the hem of my shirt, tugging it out from my trousers. I moaned, a quiet sound that even so surprised me when I felt those hands spreading across my stomach.

My movements against him felt weak and feeble in comparison, but I know I managed to undo some of the buttons of the flannel shirt he wore. There was a sense of urgency between us, as though time were running out. I gasped Arnold’s name, never once thinking before this that I would ever say that name with such want and such desire in my voice, and almost in defiance I said it again.

In response Arnold’s hands dropped to my waist stroking, touching, and smoothing over the skin there before undoing the button holding my trousers closed. My breath caught in my throat, heart hammering wildly in my chest.

No one had ever touched me in these places before and I was looking forward to it more than I could have ever imagined. It was only when he lifted my hips to slide my trousers off that I realized he’d already gotten my shirt off my shoulders, leaving it to collect in a pool beneath me.

I watched him then as he broke contact long enough to push his own shirt off his shoulders, and my eyes widened. I expected him to be strong, muscled, well-made, and I wasn’t disappointed.

But it was the parallel scars that ran diagonally across his chest that I stared at now, puckered skin that covered what must have been painfully deep wounds. The scars weren’t old; a few months at most. I sat up a bit to watch as he undid his own denim trousers, reaching out with one hand to gently touch the healed injury.

“It really was you,” I murmured softly, finally admitting what I knew. “This whole time.” The monster in the woods, the first thing to ever frighten me, was the very same creature as the man who sought to protect me from it.

He was unknowingly trying to protect me from himself, and Arnold had had no idea. I could see it now, the bit of animal in those deep eyes, knew that the beast was barely under the skin now. I knew that the reason it never harmed me, was because Arnold would never harm me. Arnold wanted me, and through him, so did the beast.

And I wanted them both.

I surged forward then, sealing my lips around his, my hands going around his neck and shoulders, fingers curling in the hair at his nape. There was the moment’s hesitation on his part again, as though waiting to be sure I knew what I wanted, and then he returned the kiss, big hands tugging me closer, closer till I simply climbed into his lap and wrapped legs around his waist.

The first brush of my length against his had us both breaking the kiss to take in a gasp of air. Then my own instinct set in and I moved against him, shifted my hips to rub back and forth against him, and the sounds the movements tore from us mingled in the near-silence of the wood.

His breath was hot and heavy against my mouth, and then against my neck as he moved south, kissing and sucking red patches onto my skin. I did not care that I’d be marked — if anything, I welcomed it. In response, I scored my nails down over his back and shoulders, leaving faint lines of pink on sun-darkened skin.

The sense of urgency was building again and I would do nothing to stop it. Instead I helped it along, dragging one hand down his chest now to reach between us and wrap my hand not just around his length, but my own, held together in my small hand. It wasn’t an easy grip to keep, but I tried, and my hand slid over us both, slowly then faster, slickening as it went from the excitement between us.

Words were kept at bay, the only sounds we could make harsh breaths and guttural moans. Arnold’s hips jerked against mine, and I returned thrust for thrust even as he pushed me back down, trailing kisses and bites all over my neck and chest. Later I would grow red at my own forwardness, but I scrabbled for my bag, reaching desperately for a jar that contained a lotion, made by my mother to keep skin soft and smooth. It would serve another purpose now and I eagerly pressed it into Arnold’s hands.

He looked at it for the briefest moment, that simple expression back on his face, and then the instinct of the beast took over once more. He uncapped it, smearing a decent amount over his fingers before settling himself back between my legs, legs I spread open for him. The first tentative rub of finger between my cheeks had my breath catching and holding, as I tried to force myself to relax. I knew what to expect, despite the fact I’d never experienced it before.

One thick finger slowly eased its way inside me, leaving me panting with both pleasure and pain. The burning, stretching sensation was nothing like anything I’d ever felt, and though unusual, I wanted more of it. I wriggled my hips, forcing his finger deeper inside me, and his own breath caught. His finger curled, twisted, stroked in and out, building a rhythm I could do nothing but keep up with. Once or twice that finger brushed against someplace I couldn’t name, and it sent shock through me that had my muscles clenching, my body shaking, and pleas for more on my lips.

I had just gotten used to the sensation, pain nothing but a vague memory, when Arnold started working another finger in. I couldn’t help but tense, and it hurt, but I didn’t dare ask him to stop. I couldn’t now, not when we were on the brink of something so powerful, we were already losing control over ourselves. I just bit my lip, begged my body to relax and let him work magic inside me.

Two fingers were in me now, working to slowly ease my muscles, to stretch them, to curl against the spot again to make me forget it ever hurt, and Arnold was doing an amazing job of it. I was near thrashing beneath him now, fighting incoherence to gasp out, “Arnold, please, please, now. I can’t – –oh! — wait any more!”

Arnold’s breath was coming just as fast, his eyes had darkened to almost black, his pupils dilated so wide I couldn’t tell them from irises in the dark. He stroked himself a few times, spreading more of the lotion to ease his entry, and then shifted above me, holding me by my hips.

I should have let him prepare me longer, I know, but it was hard enough holding out as we did. He took it slow, pressing into me one measure at a time and the whole time I held my breath, my eyes squeezed shut, my lip swelling and red from biting down on it so hard. But finally, mercifully, he was fully sheathed and I could grow used to the feeling of him fully inside me. My legs went around his hips, my arms around his shoulders and I pulled him down to kiss me again.

He started moving slowly, trying with a desperation I could almost feel to keep that urgency at bay just a little longer. But he and I could only do it for so long. I broke first, digging my heels into the base of his spine, forcing him deeper. I dug nails into his skin, and left deep lines of red instead of faint pink.

His response was a sound that could only be called a growl and a sudden slam of his hips that left me breathless. I clung to him, having only enough breath in me to beg and plead and ask for more. He hooked my legs up under his arms, holding me up; his next drive was hard against that same spot and I found myself almost screaming in pleasure.

It was too much and not enough and I ground desperately against him. I could feel the urgency taking over again, something in me building faster and faster, like my hips against Arnold’s moved faster and faster, until– I caught my breath again when that crest hits its peak and crashed over me. I shook and shivered and shouted my pleasure, feeling spurts of warmth between our bodies.

And then moment later, Arnold let out a sound that tripped some unknown nerve in me. I could feel his release slamming into me, filling me inside in a way I couldn’t describe. It sent my own passion higher and we held fast to each other as we slowly came back to ourselves.

I smoothed my hands down over his back, suffused in warmth and pleasant afterglow, and he gave a quiet hum of contentment. We stayed like that for I don’t know how long, before his weight on me forced him to have to shift. I sighed as he withdrew, missing the feeling of him in me immediately, but he lay next to me, still spread out on my crimson cloak.

The cloud bank overhead was finally passing, a threatening rainstorm that never happened. But now the moon started to shine again and I felt him stiffening beside me. I was slow to focus at first but I suddenly knew what was happening and sat bolt upright, turning to Arnold–

–just as he started to change again. I couldn’t bear to watch it and at the same time I refused to look away. This was Arnold, my Arnold, the beast and the man both, and I would not be afraid of him. His nails became claws, his teeth fangs, his skin and hair furred. I wanted to take a step back but I couldn’t, I wouldn’t! The beast stared at me, tall and wide and terrifying, but still with those eyes, those eyes I’d come to know and–

I had read fairy tales, magic stories. I knew of beasts like these, knew what could kill them. But I knew, and hoped, what could save them instead. With my heart in my throat and butterflies in my stomach, I reached out, slowly laying a hand on one massive furry forearm.

The beast flinched back, growled a warning, as if telling me to get back before it hurt me, but I knew it wouldn’t. Arnold was in there.

“I love you.” I said it softly at first, the words wrapped around my heart. And then again, louder, emphatically, truthfully and prayed it would have the effect I hoped. “Arnold, I love you.”

I always hoped magic was real. Living near a forest that birthed a number of tales, though mostly dark, it made one wonder if the magic so many people wove stories about was at all true. In that moment I learned of true magic. I saw the beast that was Arnold step back, shaking and shuddering like it had before, when the moon winked out behind the clouds.

That was the secret. He was only a beast in the light of the moon, safe from changing only during new moons, or when the pale globe was hidden behind the clouds. But now in full moonlight I watched him change back. I watched the fur and fangs and claws disappear, falling off him like a snake shedding its skin. I stood my ground, watching silently as for the last time, the beast ceased to be, and left Arnold in its place. And my Arnold shone so brightly, he rivaled the moon itself.

“I love you too, Remi,” Arnold said quietly, as the strange light about him faded. “You… you saved me. I remember it all now, everything. Everything I did when… when I wasn’t me. I couldn’t before. Every time I came back to myself, I couldn’t remember anything. Except you. You were the constant, the only thing we both knew.” He stepped forward and took my hand. “The only thing we both loved, wanted to keep safe. It was the only thing that kept the beast from hurting you.”

I swallowed, refusing to admit to the tears that I knew stood in my eyes. “I knew. Somewhere inside I knew. I knew it wouldn’t hurt me, and that’s why I sought it out. I sought you out. I knew your eyes then, and I knew how much I loved you.”

It was strange. Arnold was speaking differently now, as though he weren’t as much the simpleton I had met him as. Perhaps something of him was being kept at bay, just as he had been keeping the beast back as well.

I would learn the answers to everything later: how the creature that he had fought had bitten him moons ago, transferring its magic curse to him. I learned that the beast kept him forgetful, unaware of what transpired in its form, and in doing so, kept so much of Arnold’s mind back, made him seem simple. I learned that Arnold had seen me for the first time well before the beast ever did. But while Arnold couldn’t remember what the creature did, it always retained Arnold’s memories, and that was why it never hurt me.

We all know how fairy tales end. A kiss, a magical impossibility, and a happily ever after. We had done the first already and all that was left was spending the rest of our lives together in happiness. Years later I’d ask Arnold what was it that first attracted him to me, that made him interested in me. And he’d smile, catch me close, and say, “It was your crimson cloak.”

illustrated by Critical Strike

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