It’s just before noon when Nathan finds the first odd tree. He’s hiked this trail dozens of times since moving north a decade ago, and he’s become accustomed to seeing small changes in the forest from one visit to the next: tall trees being felled by lightning or windstorms, creeks flooded with snowmelt that require more care when crossing, new trail signs and blazes to indicate where the path now curves around sinkholes or erosion. It’s part of what he likes about being out in the forest. It’s always changing, always shifting around him in small ways, but fundamentally it remains the same.
The trail splits about three miles in, where one can choose to loop northeast back to the trailhead or continue on to the campground at the fifteen-mile point, a small clearing in a pine-filled valley over the ridge to the west. By the time the familiar beech tree comes into view, a bright blue blaze spray-painted on its trunk to indicate the turn-off point, Nathan’s glad to find that his stiff legs have warmed up and his shoulders are no longer complaining about the weight of his gear. It’s his first long hike of the summer, after a year in which he hadn’t done as much camping as he would have liked, and it’s taken longer than normal for him to hit his stride.
He’d had the vague worry that he wouldn’t find it at all on this trip, that the disappointments of the previous fall would have soured him on hiking altogether, and it’s a relief to find that he’s enjoying himself as much as he always has. More, maybe, now that he’s back to hiking on his own. He grimaces at the memory of the last time he’d brought Mel camping, and of the chill that had bled into their relationship for at least a week even after they’d returned home.
“No,” he tells himself firmly, as if the memory’s something he can banish by scolding it. “No fucking way will I let him ruin my day when he’s not even here.” That’s the point of being broken up, isn’t it? Nathan doesn’t have to think about him anymore. He focuses instead on the warmth of the early summer sun, on the squirrels chasing each other through the underbrush, on the welcome sight of the beech tree marking the split in the trail. A creature of habit, Nathan reaches out as he always does when he passes it, and pats the gray trunk twice as he always does, and—
And stops, puzzled, staring first at his hand, then at the trunk of the tree.
The trunk’s always been smooth this close to the ground, disrupted only by the trail marker and the initials a handful of assholes have carved into the bark over the years, but it’s changed since the last time he passed through, as neatly and easily as if the thick bark and living wood beneath had been fine clay, pressed inward by an insistent hand.
Pressed by Nathan’s hand, in particular.
There’s a handprint clearly visible on the trunk, now that he’s looking for it; it had been partially hidden in the shadows beneath the canopy, but now that Nathan’s stepped closer, now that he’s leaning down to look, the broad span of a palm and five long fingers are impossible to miss. He scowls and presses his hand to the print, his frown deepening when he feels how fine the fit is, as if it was molded for his hand alone. As deep as the print is, his hand slots into it easily—so easily, in fact, that when it had first slipped inside Nathan had thought for a moment, in an odd passing fancy, that he’d somehow pressed the bark in himself.
He prods at it now with a fingertip. The bark doesn’t yield at all, as he’d known it wouldn’t. The bark along the edges of the depression isn’t cracked or strained; there’s no sign of wood being carved away, or of abnormal overgrowth.
“What the fuck is this?” he asks, looking around for anything else out of place nearby that might help explain what he’s seeing. There’s nothing else unusual to be seen, though, just a flurry of dark wings as a bird vanishes from a nearby bush, presumably startled by his outburst.
Nathan fits his hand into the depression again, then shrugs and steps back from the tree. It’s a mystery, yes, but hardly one he has the time or ability to solve. What can he do? He has twelve miles to go before he reaches the campsite, and while he should arrive well before dusk at his current pace, he’d rather not press his luck and wind up setting up camp in the dark. He gives the strange handprint one last look, shakes his head, and continues on.
He’s breathing hard as he approaches the top of the ridge an hour later, calves burning after a long slog up a series of switchbacks carefully carved into the slope. He doesn’t think he’s in any worse shape now than he’d been the last time he hiked this trail, but the climb has been more strenuous than he’d remembered.
Perhaps it’s only that the memory of carefully managing Mel’s feelings, intuiting when his continued insistence that no really, I’m having a great time tipped over from polite insincerity to anger that he wasn’t being apologized to enough, is so much stronger than that of how often he’d had to catch his breath.
Nathan huffs aloud, irritated at the direction his thoughts have taken yet again. Of course he doesn’t miss Mel, but he doesn’t usually even think of him that often, either. He doesn’t want his love of this trail to be poisoned by the memory of his shitty ex sulking through a long weekend.
So think about something else, he tells himself. Don’t think about how you avoided coming back here for too long so you could avoid another fight. Think about how relieved you feel to be here now, about how good it smells in the forest, about how you have to start doing hamstring stretches more often, Jesus Christ. He winces, pulling his bandana from his back pocket and wiping sweat from his brow and the back of his neck. Maybe he is in worse shape than he’d been in the year before, after all.
It’s here, at the crest of the hill with the thickly wooded valley stretching out behind him, that he sees the second sign of something strange.
There’s a boulder just off the trail, and he sinks down onto it gratefully, swinging his backpack onto the ground and pulling out a bottle of water and a bag of trail mix. He’s making good time despite his struggle up the slope, and he figures he’s earned a few extra minutes to catch his breath. He doesn’t notice anything unusual at first, more concerned with chewing the overly large handfuls of cashews and dried cherries he shoves in his mouth than examining his immediate surroundings, but a strange shape catches his eye when he eventually hauls himself back to his feet. He squints, frowning, and tries to make sense of it.
At the edge of the trail, set slightly apart from the trees around it, a young maple is bent at a precise ninety-degree angle, an origami fold that leaves a sharp, visible crease in the trunk. The fold is at least seven feet off the ground, so he can’t get a good look at it even when he crosses the trail to examine it more closely, but just as with the handprint he’d seen earlier, there’s no sign of splintering or other damage to the tree, no obstruction it would have had to grow around. Nothing looks unusual or out of place, if he ignores the unnatural shape itself.
The maple’s branches point left, twigs angled slightly upwards in parallel as if to indicate the gentle rise of the trail ahead. “Trail sign, maybe,” Nathan mutters to himself, even though he knows it’s not. This isn’t a series of blazes or cairns along the trail, or a signpost pounded into the ground. This isn’t something a park ranger could create. This is something else.
While this is Nathan’s first time on this trail since the previous fall, he’s hiked it often enough that he has a general sense of the landmarks along the way, and this certainly isn’t one of them. It’s impossible that he’s passed by this tree multiple times without noticing it, and equally impossible that a maple this large could have grown since the last time he was here, just over a year ago. Just as impossible as the handprint had been.
Could it be an art installation of some kind? A prank? He taps the trunk with a knuckle, half-expecting a hollow sound or the feel of painted plastic, but the tree is solid, the bark rough against his skin.
He raises his head to peer up along the trail, following the line the bent twigs indicate as if he expects them to point him towards an explanation, but no answers present themselves. No one steps out from between the trees to claim responsibility, to laugh at Nathan for being taken in by their prank.
And why would they? He may not be able to understand why this tree looks the way it does, but he’s sure it isn’t because someone bent and folded it with their own hands. He may not understand how the maple could have grown the way it did, but this doesn’t change the fact that it had indeed done so. Something natural—a storm, perhaps, or the presence of another tree that’s since fallen, although even as the ideas enter his head he knows they’re wrong—had to have caused it.
Nathan sighs and finishes his water, flattening the empty bottle and tucking it into his pack before he hefts it onto his back again. He’s still on track to make the campsite well before dark, but he’s not so ahead of schedule that he can afford to spend more time puzzling over this tree, as intriguing as it is. It feels wrong to walk away from something so peculiar, but more time inspecting it won’t make him understand it any better. All he can do is move on. Maybe he’ll mention it to a ranger at the visitors’ center near the entrance, if he remembers on his way home.
The trees ahead crowd close to the path, a wall of green to either side as the trail curves away from the rocky slope. Nathan pauses for a moment, staring ahead blankly as he adjusts the straps of his pack, and suddenly the disordered press of vines and branches ahead resolves into a coherent shape, a curve like a corkscrew that spirals invitingly forward for several meters before fading into the shade of the deeper woods ahead.
“What?” he asks, a sharp, startled sound almost like a bark of laughter. He steps forward, confused, but the moment he does so, the image is gone. None of the branches ahead have moved—surely he would have noticed if they had—but the precise curve of the corkscrew has shifted into the everyday chaos of the forest canopy.
Nathan takes another step forward, then bites the inside of his cheek thoughtfully and pauses, shifting his weight as he steps back instead. As he squints at the trees ahead, he shuffles back another half-step, and suddenly there it is, clear as day: a verdant spiral beckoning him deeper into the forest.
None of the branches had shifted, he’s sure of it. He watches carefully as he takes a step to the side and then back, causing the image to shift out of being and then back again, but can’t see any movement, beyond the gentle swaying of leaves and small limbs in the breeze. Nothing seems to change. It’s just this one spot, just where he’d stood when examining the folded tree at the edge of the trail—and exactly at his height, he discovers, when he experiments by standing on his toes and seeing nothing remarkable ahead—that allows him to see it. It’s an incredible trick of perspective, only visible from one precise point.
Maybe he should turn around. Something’s happening, something he can’t explain, and surely the most reasonable option is to get the fuck away from whatever it is while he still can. Nathan’s never been one to take risks, especially not when camping; he always carries bear spray, a good first-aid kit, and an extra pair each of thick socks and underwear. He doesn’t even carry a smartphone with him, preferring a sturdier and more reliable flip phone for emergency use, although now he regrets not having the ability to take photos.
If he turns around now, he can take the other path at the handprint tree and make it to the trailhead by mid-afternoon. It’s early summer yet, far enough away from peak camping season that he might be able to claim one of the campsites near the visitors’ center, where they’re all crowded close together, even without reserving one beforehand. It wouldn’t be what he’d planned on, and certainly not at all what he’d wanted out of this trip, but it would be familiar. Safe. Somehow he’s sure that whatever’s changed things deep in the forest isn’t folding trees and crafting three-dimensional illusions of perspective out by the community showers.
He should turn around, perhaps, but Nathan knows he won’t; he discards the idea the moment it enters his mind. He’s hauling thirty pounds of gear on his back because he wants to spend the night alone, with only the calls of owls and the soft steps of deer through the undergrowth breaking the silence. Even this early in the season, privacy will be hard to come by in the main campground, and he doesn’t want to spend the evening listening to the people in the neighboring campsites whining about mosquitoes and bickering about how to light a fire. That’s not why he’s here.
It’s the solitude he craves: the deeper in the woods he gets, the farther from town and his shitty job and shittier roommate he is, the quieter his mind feels, occasional unwelcome reminders of Mel aside. Being alone with his thoughts at home always makes him feel miserable; out here, it’s a relief. It’s a gift he isn’t able to give himself often enough, and he refuses to give it up just because of some weird-looking trees.
Whatever it is that’s happening, it doesn’t feel dangerous. There’s no unnatural stillness in the forest around him; he hears snatches of birdsong and the staccato tap of a woodpecker off in the distance, as well as the telltale rustlings on the forest floor that mean squirrels or mice are about. Nothing about what he’s seen so far seems sinister or unsafe, just strange. Strange and…inviting, somehow, although he’s not sure where that feeling’s coming from.
Trees can’t hurt me, Nathan thinks, his mind made up, and he steps forward, breaking the illusion of perspective as he continues along the trail. A grackle hops across the path, letting out a sharp, hoarse cry as it vanishes into the undergrowth.
The beckoning spiral shape appears several more times as the afternoon progresses, always after Nathan’s taken a break. He’ll take his eyes off the trail ahead for a moment, bending to tighten his laces or shoving a half-finished bag of beef jerky back into his pack, and when he stands up, it’ll be waiting in the light and shadow ahead of him, a shape formed in the forest’s canopy that’s only visible from the precise point he’s standing when he first sees it. He stands still for a few minutes every time, shifting his weight on the balls of his feet to try and catch the moment when the forest ahead changes from disordered beauty to a precise, manicured shape, but he never does. The trees never shift in and out of position, and there’s no transitional moment when the image is half-formed. It simply snaps into place if he shifts back to the correct position and is gone just as quickly the moment he moves, as if he’s staring at a Magic Eye image and letting his eyes relax just far enough that he loses the image entirely.
He’d never gotten the hang of those, to be honest; he always wound up with a headache before he could see the dolphin or skateboard or whatever else the images claimed he’d be able to see in them. He thinks he might give himself a headache here, too, if he keeps squinting at the trees ahead and trying to make sense of what he’s seeing.
It isn’t just the shape he can’t make sense of, either. There’s a small creek roughly halfway to the campsite, one with cold, swift-running water thanks to the last of the winter’s snowmelt, and as he approaches it Nathan’s surprised to see the banks covered in flowers, familiar shapes like buttercups and violets in colors he’s never seen: vivid coral, bubblegum pink, a green so pale and translucent the flowers look like they’re carved from jade. Most striking, though, are the wild irises clustered in a small patch of calmer water to one side of the narrow bridge, their iridescent petals shifting like a bird’s feathers in the sun, from a deep blackish-blue to purple to bronze.
Nathan picks his way down the rocks along the edge of the creek once he crosses, leaning in to smell one of the irises. It has a sharp, spicy scent, not floral at all, and it leaves a dusting of shimmering golden pollen on his fingertip when he curiously bends a petal to watch the colors shift in the changing light. His mother had been an avid gardener, and he’d seen plenty of fancy hybrid flowers as a child, but this, a flower changing colors in the sun like the iridescent feathers of the grackle he’d seen earlier, is something he’s never seen before. He would have said, if asked, that flowers like this don’t exist. He’s staring at one now—at a few dozen of them—and he still isn’t sure that they do.
A motion by his feet catches his eye. He steps back reflexively, always on alert for streamside snakes or other critters that could get underfoot, but all he sees when he looks down is one perfect iris blossom floating on the surface, pushed by the current into the shallow, pebble-lined edge of the creek. He plucks it out of the water and cradles it in his hand, surprised by how neatly the short stem seems to have been broken off from the rest of the plant. It’s a clean cut, as precise as it would have been if he’d made it with his sharp camp knife; there’s no bruising on the stem or on the flower itself. Could an animal have done this? Surely not, but he isn’t sure what else it could have been.
Nathan twirls the flower between his fingers for a moment, admiring the strange play of colors across its petals. He feels strongly about not picking wildflowers, but there’s nothing wrong with taking something that simply drifted downstream to him, right? He tucks the flower behind his ear, wedging the stem behind the arm of his glasses to hold it in place, and frowns when he catches another waft of the strange scent, gingery and resinous and decidedly un-floral. It’s pleasant, as unusual as it is, but it’s just one more confusing thing in a day that’s been full of them already.
Nathan has a curious mind, but he’s never been one for solving puzzles; when he reads mysteries, he rarely tries to piece the clues together himself, preferring instead to be pleasantly surprised when the murderer’s revealed. He doubts he’ll find anyone at the trail’s end to explain this mystery to him, but the fact doesn’t bother him much. The changed forest feels safe enough, even after several hours of being led down the trail by a shape that seems to be targeting him somehow, and as long as that’s the case, he’s determined not to drive himself crazy trying to understand what’s going on. Even the slight apprehension he’d initially felt has faded into a pleased sort of bewilderment. It’s impossible to make sense of the situation, so he quickly decides it’s best not to try.
The trail crosses a wide meadow just over a mile from the campsite, another landmark Nathan’s happy to see. It’s been a long, strange day, and both his tired feet and his confused mind are ready for a break. It’s always been one of his favorite spots along the trail, a broad expanse of long pale grasses and fragrant honeysuckle bushes with bright orange and yellow and pale blue wildflowers scattered throughout.
There are blackberry bushes here as well, ancient, thorny tangles stretching across the sunniest part of the meadow, but it’s far too soon for them to be flowering yet, let alone bearing fruit. Even so, however, the moment he steps out from the forest’s edge he can smell the thick, sweet scent of ripe berries and see flocks of small birds chattering and chirping as they swoop around the bushes and fight over the bounty. It’s early May, which means today’s unusually warm weather has barely risen above seventy degrees, but as Nathan approaches the bushes, he suddenly feels like it’s mid-July; the heat of the sun is surprising, even for late afternoon, and the scent of the blackberries is one he only experiences at the height of summer.
A handful of grackles flies away as he approaches the closest bush, although one circles back to land only a few feet away, pecking at a berry while seemingly keeping an eye on him. Grackles aren’t an uncommon sight in these woods by any means, but he’s seen more of them today than he usually does, chatting to each other in bushes or watching quietly from the tall pines along the trail. This one watches him more intently than the others, but he supposes it’s natural for a bird to be wary about a human approaching its food source, especially one that appears out of season.
“I’m not trying to steal from you, bud,” Nathan tells it as he pulls a large, ripe-looking berry from the bush. It’s slightly warm in his hand, and he feels it give just a bit beneath his fingers as he pulls it away. “There’s plenty to go around, don’t you think?”
The grackle tilts his head as if listening, then ruffles its feathers with a gesture that looks suspiciously like a shrug and starts meticulously preening its tail. Nathan stares at it for a moment, admiring the subtle iridescence of its feathers while watching for any further reaction, but it doesn’t do anything else unusual. He pops the berry in his mouth, crushing it against the roof of his mouth with his tongue.
Sweet juice floods his mouth. He’d half-expected it to be too sour, given the season, but whatever caused these bushes to bear fruit two months early also made them grow the best damn blackberries he’s ever tasted, sun-warmed and sweet and reminiscent of the pies he braves the heat of his oven enough to bake at the height of summer. He eats a handful more, then unstraps his backpack and pulls out a small cooking pot which he lines with a spare bandana. He fills it with berries, eating one for every three or four he drops inside, before carefully tucking the rest of the fabric over top and clamping the lid back on. Blackberries are his favorite fruit, and because he loves them too much to eat them out of season it’s been nearly a year since he’s had them; having some available so early in the summer is a treat he wants to take full advantage of. He isn’t much of a cook when he’s camping, relying mostly on foods he can boil or rehydrate, so they’ll be a welcome end to his meal for the night.
Nathan slows his pace as he crosses the meadow, picking berries and sucking juice off his fingers as he goes. The blackberry bushes are swarmed with birds and squirrels which ignore him for the most part, flying or scampering away only when he’s an arm’s length away and focusing more on their squabbles over the ripest berries than on the short, sweaty human strolling past the buffet.
There are a couple, though, that seem to watch more closely as he passes. Yet another grackle—is it the same one as before, perhaps?—seems the most interested in him, hopping from one bush to the next to stay abreast of Nathan as he makes his way towards the pine-filled forest on the other side of the meadow. Without thinking, Nathan does the same thing he does when a dog watches him eat: he holds a berry between his thumb and forefinger, asks, “Want it?” to the grackle staring at him, and lobs it its way.
The grackle makes no move to intercept the berry. It follows its trajectory as it rises and falls, tracking it with minute shifts of its head until it drops to the packed earth of the path with a gentle thump. It flicks its tail and gives a short, hoarse cry, as if deeply unimpressed.
“Guess you can’t catch,” Nathan tells it. “I’m not sure what the fuck I expected.” He walks sheepishly on, aware of the bird’s gaze on him as he passes. He feels the weight of its attention as he crosses the final yards of open ground, the prickling awareness of being observed fading only once he passes into the shade of the forest once more.
The final stretch leading to the campsite is a gently-sloping descent into a quiet valley filled with tall pines, the trail made cool and dark by the thick press of the trees to either side of the path blocking out much of the afternoon sun. The pines’ bluish-green needles ripple like seagrass waving in a gentle current, a rhythmic fluttering that beckons Nathan forward. They’re far more mobile than they should be in the gentle breeze, curling around each other and twisting into elaborate knots as Nathan passes. When he reaches out to touch the swaying needles, several of them wrap loosely around his fingers, tugging gently as if to encourage him to continue down the path.
He hardly needs the encouragement; he’d decided hours ago that he had no interest in turning around. Still, though, it’s this that makes him pause for the first time since he decided to continue on. Up until now, everything strange he’s seen has been wholly passive; this is the first time he’s felt like whatever’s happening is engaging with him and not just existing in his presence. It’s a little unsettling, as light as the needles’ pull may be.
The pine needles tighten, squeezing Nathan’s fingers in a gentle but persistent pressure as they tug him forward more insistently. “You gotta let go if you want me to keep going,” he admonishes them, pulling his fingers free, even though he feels like an idiot the moment he says it. The needles slacken at the first sign of his resistance, uncurling from around his fingers and returning to the same rippling, swaying motion as before, although now the branches of the trees are swaying as well, as if gesturing more emphatically.
As he admires the pines’ twisting shapes, he realizes that they are now growing so densely along the side of the path that he can barely see past the boundary of the trail at all. He remembers this area of the forest as fairly open, full of trees but easy to navigate if he sees kindling to collect within a few yards of the trail. Now, though, their rough branches are woven so thickly together that he doesn’t think he’d be able to squeeze between the trees at all, even if he were to leave his bulky hiking pack behind. What little he can see between the waving branches is shrouded in shadow, much darker than even the heavily-shaded trail on which he stands. The forest around him suddenly feels a little less fanciful, a little more foreboding.
He’d had no intention of leaving the trail, especially this close to the campsite when he’s eager to rest, but now that he can’t, now that it’s no longer a choice he’s making but one he’s been forced into, apprehension begins to build in his chest. He steps more carefully, half-expecting to see someone looking back at him as he peers through the small gaps in the branches into the shadowed forest beyond. No one’s there, of course, but when he glances over his shoulder at the trail behind him, something about the way the shadows fall on the slope above makes it look narrower than before, as if the trees are slowly closing in shortly after he passes them by. Maybe it’s another strange trick of perspective, like the spiral that’s been leading him forward all afternoon. Maybe he’d be better off not looking any more closely, just in case it isn’t.
For the first time, Nathan wonders if he’s made a terrible mistake.
But even if he can turn back now, even if the trail’s as clear as it had been when he’d passed through, he won’t be able to make it back to the trailhead before dark. This far north, there are still a few hours of daylight left even this late in the afternoon, but it’s nowhere near enough time to backtrack fourteen miles. If he’s spending the night in the woods, which he’s going to have to do one way or another, he’d rather do so in the campground ahead, where he knows there’s a firepit and enough room for his tent, than off the side of the trail wherever he ends up when it’s too dark to continue on.
Nathan sighs, bouncing anxiously on the balls of his feet as he works up the nerve to continue. He’s almost at the campsite, a quarter-mile away at the most by his estimation, and once he arrives, he’ll have plenty to keep himself occupied as he sets up camp for the night. He’s already running down a checklist in his head: unpack and set up the tent, gather wood and pine straw for a fire, make dinner. Having a list of tasks to focus on has always been a comfort to him in stressful times, and while he isn’t yet sure if this qualifies as stressful, it’s certainly helpful to have something other than the strangeness of the forest around him occupying his mind.
He’ll make camp, cook himself a good meal, eat the rest of the mysteriously out of season berries while he reads the battered paperback buried under his spare clothes, and watch the stars through the trees for a while before he turns in. Maybe whatever’s happening around him will make more sense in the morning. Maybe he’ll wake up and everything that’s changed will have gone back to normal.
“Enough stalling,” he tells himself quietly, as if he’s worried the birds calling to each other across the treetops will overhear. “Get your ass moving. You’re losing daylight.” It’s this reminder, that even with the late summer sunsets his time before dark is limited, that gets him moving again, trudging towards the clearing that swiftly comes into view as he continues down the gentle slope.
When he reaches the campsite, Nathan’s grateful to set his eyes on something familiar—or mostly familiar, at least. It looks roughly the same as it had the last time he’d spent a night here, if he ignores the close press of the pines around the boundary of open land. To one side of the trail is a small clearing with enough room for a firepit ringed in stone, three cut logs serving as a makeshift table and chairs, and a mostly-level patch of earth large enough to hold a small tent. Yet another grackle scratches at the ground at the far edge of the clearing, flying into the nearest tree when Nathan steps off of the trail.
Nathan groans as he unclips his backpack and lets it fall to the ground, taking a moment to shake the stiffness out of his shoulders before he starts the process of unpacking and setting up his tent. Now that he’s on the other side of thirty, his back is much more eager to complain about the weight of his camping gear than it used to be. Hopefully he’ll be able to sleep comfortably enough tonight that he won’t be in any more pain when it’s time to leave in the morning.
The tent’s easy to work with, at least; it takes less than half an hour for Nathan to have it fully set up with his sleeping bag and pillow arranged inside. It’s roomy enough for two people, in theory, but as he’d learned over the handful of times Mel had come along, there’s only enough room if both people actually enjoy camping and want to be there in the first place. It’s not at all large enough to hold two people, their equipment, and several months’ worth of resentment.
He sighs and stretches out on his sleeping bag, angling his body so his hiking boots rest on the ground outside, and stares at the sky through the mesh panel in the top of the tent. Thinking about Mel never leads him anywhere good; he knows that.
It isn’t that he misses him. Mel had told him he would, when they’d ended things, but Nathan mostly just feels relieved that he no longer has to spend so much mental energy managing Mel’s feelings and deciphering the hidden meaning behind everything he said. It isn’t him that Nathan misses, but the feeling of being wanted, the excitement of those first few months before sex and affection became tools Mel could use to show his displeasure without bothering to speak openly about how he felt.
He misses feeling desirable, and he doesn’t think he’s likely to experience that again anytime soon; he isn’t exactly shy, but he’s quiet enough that meeting partners has always been difficult. He’s part of a local organization that coordinates group hikes every month or two, and while he enjoys it as a way to socialize, the folks he’s met there are all either happily partnered or extremely fitness-focused in a way that’s incompatible with his slower, more snack-positive approach to both hiking and life in general. He doesn’t mind clubs or loud parties, but they’re not the sort of places where he’s likely to stand out, and he doesn’t have many quieter opportunities to meet someone. He isn’t sure if he ever will. It’s a familiar worry, and his determination to ignore it for as long as possible is familiar too; it’s not a problem for which he has an easy solution, so he does his best to set it aside.
Exhaustion washes over Nathan, and he considers kicking his boots off and closing his eyes for a moment, even though he knows it’s a terrible idea. If he falls asleep now, he’ll be stuck bumbling around in the dark trying to find enough wood to start a fire or eating nothing but blackberries and beef jerky for dinner, and neither option is appealing. He’ll feel better if he gets up.
“So get up,” he grumbles aloud, as his body stubbornly refuses to do so. The strangeness of the day and the sudden, unwelcome memory of his last disaster of a relationship are a heavy weight holding him in place, even though he knows he’ll feel better when he gets moving. He groans and flings an arm over his eyes, jostling the flower he’d tucked behind his ear back at the stream. Despite the heat of the day and the lack of water, when he pulls it out of his hair to examine it, it looks as fresh and vibrant as it had earlier. The petals, still faintly iridescent even in the low light of the tent, haven’t wilted, and the flower still carries the same strange, spicy smell as before.
Something about the odd scent is invigorating, enough to get him moving again; he tucks the flower back behind his ear and sits up, although as he moves to exit the tent, he’s surprised to find that he has to push aside a mass of honeysuckle vines hanging over the entrance in order to leave.
They haven’t just been placed on the tent somehow, although that would have been odd enough on its own; as he rises to his feet, Nathan sees that the tent is covered in vines that have grown around and over top of it, as if he’d pitched it years ago and not just ten minutes before. The vines aren’t just covering his tent, though: as Nathan slowly turns and takes in the entire campsite, he sees that they’ve overgrown the pines surrounding the clearing as well, as have massive, thorny tangles of flowering blackberry canes. They fill the spaces between the trees as if woven in by hand, braided and twisted into intricate patterns, and it isn’t until Nathan’s turned in place slowly several times, trying to follow the loops and flourishes of the designs, that he realizes the entrance to the clearing has vanished entirely, hidden by a fragrant curtain of honeysuckle and blackberry flowers.
He wonders if now is the moment he should start panicking.
“Do you like it?” a voice asks from behind him.
“Fuck!” Nathan cries, tripping over his backpack as he stumbles backwards in surprise. He lands heavily on the ground, looking around frantically to find the source of the voice. He knows he’d been alone in the campground; how could someone have followed him here without him noticing? “What the fuck,” he says, as a figure steps out of the shadowed forest, pushing aside the intertwined vines and branches as easily as if stepping through a beaded curtain. “Who the hell are you?”
The stranger ignores the question. “Are you hurt?” he asks, stepping forward with a hand outstretched. Even in his panic, Nathan notices how handsome he is, tall and broad with large, dark eyes that regard him intently and hair is so black it looks faintly blue or purple. He’s covered in tattoos, intricate loops and swirls that follow the lines of his body, and as Nathan’s gaze follows their path, trying to make sense of the design, he realizes there’s nothing to obstruct his view at all.
“You’re naked,” Nathan blurts out, doing his best to focus on the man’s face as he approaches, as intriguing as the rest of him may be. He’s scared—he should be scared, at least, although the feeling isn’t as strong as he thinks it should be, now that the initial shock is wearing off—but he takes the stranger’s offered hand all the same, allowing himself to be helped up to his feet. His hands are broad and warm and he pulls Nathan up with ease, steadying him when he stumbles and nearly plants his face into his bare chest.
“I am,” the man agrees, cheerfully. He doesn’t let go of Nathan’s wrist. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine,” Nathan says, although he’s pretty sure he’ll have a hell of a bruise on his ass in the morning. “I don’t know how you show up naked and unannounced and expect me not to be startled, though.” His heart is still racing, his breathing quick, but he doesn’t step away.
The man smiles at him. “I thought you might be expecting me.”
Nathan’s shocked into silence for a moment, frowning as he tries to make sense of the man’s words. “You’re a stranger,” he says, “a naked stranger in my campsite. I have no idea who you are or what you want. Why would you think I was expecting you?”
“I made this for you,” the stranger says, gesturing with the hand not still gently wrapped around Nathan’s wrist to the clearing around them, to the encircling vines and the carpet of soft moss that’s now underfoot. “You accepted my gifts and followed my path. I assumed you were here for me.”
“Your gifts?” Nathan echoes.
“You carry my favors,” he says. “The marks of them, as well.” He shifts his grip on Nathan’s wrist, holding his hand palm-up and brushing his thumb over the reddish-purple stain of blackberry juice on his fingers. “See here? I know you enjoyed the berries I prepared for you. And here.” He steps forward, brushing the fingertips of his other hand against Nathan’s cheek and showing him the trace of shimmering pollen he’d found there.
Nathan is very aware of the heat of the stranger’s body and the confidence of his touch, as if the thought that Nathan might not welcome such attention is completely foreign to him. The stranger smiles, a look of smug satisfaction on his face as he nods at the iris tucked behind Nathan’s ear. “The color suits you, as I knew it would.”
“I don’t understand,” Nathan says. “I haven’t understood anything that’s happened today. Are you telling me you… what, that you made a field full of blackberries ripen a few months early? That you knew I’d find one of those flowers loose in the stream?”
“I knew you would find it, because I cut it for you,” the man tells him. “And I knew you’d accept it as my favor, as well.”
“I didn’t—” Nathan feels like he’s arguing the wrong point, when there are more important questions he could be asking, but he bristles at the suggestion that he’d known what he was doing when he’d picked it up. He’s known all day that something was happening that he didn’t understand, but it’s one thing to see something impossible and something else entirely to find out he’d done something that carried a meaning he wasn’t aware of. His relationship with Mel had given him more than enough experience with gifts that carried some hidden obligation, and he isn’t eager to find himself indebted to a stranger without his consent. “I didn’t accept anything.” He frowns. “I picked up a flower because I thought it was beautiful. That doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“Doesn’t it?” The man’s grip loosens on Nathan’s wrist, but not to drop it; instead, he shifts his hand, brushing his thumb gently over Nathan’s pulse point in a startlingly intimate gesture. “You enjoyed my gifts, even if you didn’t recognize them as such. I’m glad.”
Heat prickles across Nathan’s face. He should pull away. He should put plenty of space between himself and the strange naked man who’d walked out of the forest, a man whose dark hair shimmers with a hint of iridescence and who claims to have sent him berries out of season as a gift. He shouldn’t let this man touch him, shouldn’t let him act like all of this is normal.
He should pull away, but he doesn’t. He should hate that a stranger’s being far too familiar with him, but he doesn’t. He should assume he’s either lying or crazy, but he can’t quite manage it.
“Thank you, I guess,” Nathan says, wondering if he’s doomed himself the moment the words leave his mouth. He’s read plenty of folktales about the importance of not saying thank you to strange magical people you meet in the woods, although he can’t remember the consequences of such an act. He’s pretty sure those stories all said not to eat food offered by such people either, and he’s already done that, so maybe thanking the stranger doesn’t matter. It’s too late either way, so he does his best to set that worry aside.
“And the…” Nathan waves his hand behind him, where he knows the trail still runs past the clearing even if the entrance is grown over, covered with thorns and vines. “The shape I kept seeing in the trees? You did that as well?”
The stranger nods. “The forest won’t be changed without its consent,” he says. “Not even by me. I didn’t force it, but yes, that path was made by my hands. I wanted to catch your interest. I wanted to draw you to me.”
The golden afternoon light catches on his hair as he speaks, turning the hint of color into a glossy oilslick that shifts from purple to blue to deep green. The sight is familiar; as Nathan admires the flash of color, he’s reminded of the grackle that had followed him closely through the meadow. “Oh no,” he says, faintly, as an idea occurs to him.
The stranger raises an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Was that you?” Nathan asks. “The grackle in the meadow. Were you watching me?”
He feels foolish as soon as he says it. Who in their right mind accuses a stranger of also being a bird? But if he accepts what he says—and as ridiculous as it sounds, he finds himself inclined to do so—the sudden wild suspicion that grips him doesn’t seem any less plausible than anything else that’s happened today.
The stranger laughs in delight, as if pleased Nathan made the connection. “In a sense, yes,” he says. “That grackle wasn’t me, she was—” He makes a sound like a rusty hinge, which Nathan assumes is meant to be… the bird’s name, perhaps?
“The bird exists apart from me,” he continues. “But she isn’t entirely separate from me. She was watching you, so I was as well.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Nathan asks, and now he does step back, removing his hand from the stranger’s grasp. He lets him go, smoothly releasing his hold when Nathan pulls against it, but he has the suspicion that if he hadn’t wanted to do so, he wouldn’t have been able to get away. “I’m sorry, but what is the point of all of this? Why lead me here, then make it so I can’t leave? What do you want with me?” He’s breathing hard now, heart rattling in his chest as he waves his hand at the entire area of the stranger he’s been doing his best to politely ignore. “And why the hell aren’t you wearing any pants?”
“That last question’s the simplest to answer,” the stranger says. “I don’t wear clothing when I’m a person any more than I do when I’m not.”
“That’s a simple answer?”
The man shrugs. “Is it not? I’m not wearing clothes because it isn’t something I do. Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“No more than any of the rest of this, I guess,” Nathan admits, “but it isn’t making things any less weird. I’m trying to be polite, but. Uh.” His eyes flick down from the man’s face to his broad thighs, where his intriguing tattoos peek out from a layer of dark hair. Nathan feels like he’d understand the pattern if only he had the chance to examine it long enough; there’s something familiar about the design that he can’t quit place.
“It isn’t impolite to admire me.” The man’s grinning when Nathan looks him in the eye again. “I want you to.”
“I didn’t say anything about admiring you,” Nathan protests, even though he’s sure it’s obvious that’s exactly what he’d be doing if he didn’t feel so self-conscious about staring at a stranger’s dick. He doesn’t have a type, not really; the people he’s dated haven’t been particularly similar to one another. If pressed, though, he’d admit that “tall, thick, covered in interesting tattoos and irritatingly forward” is as close to his type as it gets. He’s more than a little annoyed at this guy, whoever he is, but if he has to deal with a surprise naked man invading his campsite, he’s at least glad that the one he’s stuck with is nice to look at.
“Oh, of course.” The stranger nods solemnly, although his shit-eating grin just gets wider. “My mistake.”
“Okay, smartass,” Nathan grumbles. “So you’re naked because you’re naked all the time, whether you’re a person or not, whatever the fuck that means, and sometimes you’re a bird, and you did all this weird shit to…what, to get my attention? To trap me in here with you?”
The stranger’s expression falls, as if Nathan’s hurt his feelings. “You aren’t trapped,” he says. “I have no intention of keeping you here without your consent.”
“Then where the hell is the door?” Nathan points at the place where the entrance to the clearing should be. “Or the—whatever. The way back to the trail. You’ve fenced me in with thorns, I don’t know how else to interpret it.”
“I wanted to create a private space,” the stranger says, placatingly. “Your plan was always to stay here overnight, wasn’t it?”
“The thorns will be gone by morning,” he says. “Their purpose was never to keep you here. I thought you’d enjoy the flowers. Truly, that was my only intention. I wanted to make this space beautiful for you.”
Nathan steps closer to the edge of the clearing, examining the intricately braided mass of honeysuckle vines and flowering blackberry canes. The sweet perfume of the honeysuckle is noticeable from just a few feet away, with a hint of the fainter, more floral scent of the blackberry blossoms evident when he leans in closer to the explosion of flowers. “Okay,” he says, exhaling heavily. Whether or not he should believe what the stranger says, he finds himself eager to do so. “It is beautiful, and if you really did do this for me, I guess I appreciate the thought. I still don’t understand why.”
“Is what I want such a mystery?” the stranger asks, his voice surprisingly close to Nathan’s ear as he comes to stand behind him. One hand rests on Nathan’s shoulder; after a brief pause, he settles the other on his hip. “I gave you gifts. I was pleased to see you wearing my token, even if you didn’t know it for what it was. I’ve created a beautiful, private space we can enjoy together. What would that suggest to you?”
“I, uh,” Nathan stammers. The stranger’s hand is warm. It’s difficult to focus on what he’s saying when he’s trying to resist the temptation to lean back into his embrace.
“I need a mate,” the stranger says. “I need someone to help me bear a child. I’d like it to be you.”
Nathan’s throat is suddenly very dry. “I’m not the kind of guy who can get pregnant,” he says. This, at least, is a detail on which he is very clear.
“I don’t need you to be able to. My kind don’t reproduce like you do. We need people. Humans. You have an essence we need.”
“What, you’re gonna suck out my soul through my dick? Or is that a fancy way to say you need my blood?”
The stranger comes to stand in front of him, concern furrowing his brow. His left hand is still perched on Nathan’s hip, and he squeezes it gently as he speaks.
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“I trust you enough not to protest when you do that,” Nathan admits, nodding at the stranger’s hand on his hip. “I don’t think I’m afraid of you.”
The stranger’s posture relaxes at that. “I’m glad.”
“But I don’t know anything about you, either. You haven’t even given me your name! There’s only so far I can trust you if you won’t do that, at the very least.”
“If you’re worried about what to cry out during sex, don’t bother,” the stranger says, grinning. “If you have the presence of mind to call out a name, it’ll mean I’m doing something wrong.”
“If you want my trust,” Nathan says, “avoiding the question isn’t going to help. Or are you telling me you don’t have a name at all?”
The stranger shrugs carelessly. “Nothing you would recognize as such. You can call me what you like, if you feel the need to address me directly. There’s no one else here; whatever name you choose, I’ll know you’re talking to me. Or if you like…” He purses his lips, considering. “You can call me Quiscalus; that’s a name humans have given the birds I favor. Or Calus, if that’s preferable. Or, as I said, anything at all.”
“Quiscalus,” Nathan repeats. “Sure. I suppose you know my name already.”
“I do,” Quiscalus—Nathan supposes he’ll call him by that name, even if it isn’t truly his—says with a smile. “Nathan. A gift.”
“That’s me,” says Nathan, who’s never felt much like a gift at all. “But if you’re telling the truth about all of this, if I’m not just having a very vivid hallucination at the end of a long day, then you’re powerful enough to do whatever you want, aren’t you? I couldn’t stop you, if you wanted to take something from me. It doesn’t matter whether I trust you or not.”
“I don’t—I wouldn’t take from you,” Quiscalus protests. “Not like that. No more than I would be taking a story from you if you told it to me. I need the essence—the energy—that sexual intimacy produces. If you share it with me, you won’t lose anything.” He steps closer, wrapping one large hand around the back of Nathan’s neck. “It’ll be pleasurable for you, I’ll make sure of that.”
“So you…” Nathan tries to look away, to give himself a chance to gather his thoughts without staring at Quiscalus’ stupidly attractive face, but his grip on his neck tightens, not enough to be painful but just enough to hold him in place. He closes his eyes, equal parts aroused and embarrassed by his arousal, and takes a deep breath before he continues his thought. “You did all of this so I’d sleep with you? Because getting me off will get you pregnant, or however it works for you?”
“I can’t get pregnant any more than you can,” Quiscalus informs him. “The particulars are difficult to explain, but your arousal and orgasm, as well as the content of your dreams immediately afterwards, would contain the essence I need to be able to reproduce. It isn’t something I would take from you, but an experience we would share, one I believe would benefit us both. I had hoped, once I saw you, that you’d be the one to assist me in this process.”
Why me? The question lodges itself in Nathan’s throat; when he opens his mouth to ask, a different one altogether comes out. “And I’d be a father to…to what, exactly? Someone else like you, who’s sometimes a bird and never wears clothes?”
“Yes,” Quiscalus agrees. “Someone like me. But you’d bear no further responsibility. Your only concern would be the pleasure we share tonight.” He traces his thumb along the short, sensitive hairs at the base of Nathan’s skull and nods approvingly when he inhales at the touch. “And as I said, I’ll make sure you enjoy yourself. I’m a generous lover, and it’s been far too long since I’ve been able to dote on a human partner.”
“Okay,” Nathan says. “I can believe that, I suppose, as much as I can believe any of this. But if I didn’t want to… what then?”
“If,” Quiscalus echoes, the word light in his mouth, “if you didn’t want to, well. We’d work something out, surely. But that won’t be a problem for us, will it?” He brings Nathan’s hand to his mouth, pressing slow kisses across his knuckles.
Nathan only halfway manages to stifle a whimper. Quiscalus’ lips are surprisingly soft for someone who presumably has no access to lip balm, and his breath is hot against his skin. “Are you telling me I can’t say no?”
Quiscalus laughs. “Of course not,” he says, “but can’t and won’t are two different things, aren’t they? You’re welcome to refuse, but you and I both know you aren’t going to.”
“Do we?” Nathan asks, weakly.
“Mm,” Quiscalus hums affirmatively, before kissing his hand again. “You don’t want to refuse, do you?”
Nathan’s confused, he’s exhausted, he’s not entirely convinced that what he’s experiencing isn’t an elaborate dream or a complete break from reality. He knows that if this is real, it’s probably not the soundest decision to fuck a naked man who’s been courting him with blackberries and strange shapes in the forest and who is most likely not a man at all. But for once in his life, he doesn’t care what the right decision may be. His mind’s already made up.
“No,” he says. “I don’t.”
“I know,” Quiscalus says, and leans in to kiss him.
Nathan hasn’t been kissed in months, and not with enthusiasm for well over a year. He’s frozen for a moment, somehow surprised despite Quiscalus’ clear intentions, and then Quiscalus slips his tongue past his lips and he’s far too concerned with how good it feels to be surprised at all.
“Fuck,” he pants, when Quiscalus pulls away for a moment. “You get a lot of practice kissing hikers out here?”
“Less than I’d like.” Quiscalus nudges Nathan’s cheek with his nose, tilting his head to the side to allow him better access to his neck. “I’m patient, though. I don’t mind waiting for the right person to come along.”
“What, uh,” Nathan starts, only to trail off when Quiscalus licks the underside of his jaw. He stops, though, once he realizes Nathan’s fallen silent, and regards him quietly until he continues, squeezing Nathan’s hip gently in encouragement.
Nathan closes his eyes. “What makes me the right person? Or am I just…” He shrugs. “Am I just the guy who came by at the right time?”
“You love it here, don’t you?” Quiscalus asks. He kisses Nathan’s neck, speaks so low and close he can feel the heat of his breath. “You love this forest.”
“I do, yeah,” Nathan says. “I’ve been coming here for a long time.” Since he’d moved to town, just over a decade ago. It isn’t that he never hikes elsewhere, but he defaults to this park most of the time, whether he’s camping overnight or not. It’s always struck him as a little more scenic than other forests in the area, with clearer streams and more plentiful ferns and flowers in the undergrowth. He’s seen more wildlife during the day, gray foxes and families of wild turkeys and spotted fawns curled in the fallen leaves, and more stars at night here than in any other stretch of forest in the state.
“I know,” Quiscalus says. “And when you love a place like that, it notices.” He slips a hand under Nathan’s shirt, pressing his broad palm into the small of his back. “Sometimes the forest starts to love you back.
“Here,” he says, before Nathan’s suddenly-blank mind provides an appropriate response. He sinks to his knees, pulling Nathan down beside him. “Let me show you.”
What does it mean if a forest loves me? Nathan has no idea. He doesn’t even know what Quiscalus means by it, exactly. It’s too large a thought to hold, so for the moment he sets it aside. He allows himself to be pressed down onto the soft, mossy ground and only puts up a token protest when Quiscalus starts to undress him. Nathan’s sweaty and disheveled from hiking all day and not feeling particularly appealing as a result, but his halfhearted protests stutter to a stop in the face of Quiscalus’ obvious enthusiasm.
“You smell good,” he says, pressing his nose into the thick hair on Nathan’s chest and sighing contentedly. “Like you belong here. Don’t be ashamed of it.” Quiscalus himself smells like the forest, like pine sap and sun-warmed soil and the sharp green scent of new growth. It’s appealing but distinctly inhuman, with no hint of sweat or musk at all, and Nathan’s surprised by how much he likes it.
He’s beyond the point of worrying about whether or not it’s a good idea to fuck an inhuman stranger in the middle of the woods. He’s made his decision, and while he doesn’t truly understand who or what Quiscalus is, he trusts him. At this point his only concern is enjoying himself, which is thankfully proving to be a very simple task.
“What do you like?” Quisclaus asks, after another deep kiss. He scrapes his teeth over the junction between Nathan’s neck and shoulder before biting down roughly, humming happily against Nathan’s skin when he jerks and moans in response. “It’s easy enough to learn for myself, but it would be more enjoyable for us both if you told me, don’t you think?”
Nathan’s never been the best at asking his partners for something he wants; his desires are flexible enough that it’s always been easier to go along with what they’ve wanted, which has usually aligned closely enough with what he enjoys that it hasn’t been a problem. “I’m easy to please,” he deflects. He bares his neck and tangles his fingers in Quiscalus’ long hair as he urges him closer, hoping he’ll bite him again. “Everything you’re doing feels good already, and you’re hot as hell. I won’t be disappointed.”
“I’m here to attend to your pleasure,” Quiscalus reminds him, although he does take the obvious invitation, trailing a line of wet, biting kisses across his shoulder. “Tell me what you want, so I can give it to you.”
His cock presses into Nathan’s thigh, hot and thick and incredibly distracting once Quiscalus starts to rut against him, and he closes his eyes and forces himself to respond, hoping that if he does it quickly enough he’ll be able to outrun his embarrassment: “CanIsuckyouoffplease?”
“Oh?” Quiscalus rolls one of Nathan’s nipples between his fingers, grinning at the moan he can’t quite manage to stifle in response. “What was that?”
“I know you—oh fuck—I know you heard me,” Nathan says, reaching for Quiscalus’ hip as he presses his thigh back against the slow, deliberate grind of his cock.
“I did.” Quiscalus rolls onto his side and takes his own erection in hand, stroking his cock as Nathan watches. His mouth drops open at the sight of the flushed, swollen head of his cock emerging from his foreskin. “You want this?”
“Yes.” Nathan’s woefully out of practice, but his cocksucking instincts are strong; he’s sure the muscle memory’s still there. And if not, well. Hopefully Quiscalus won’t mind if it takes him a moment to get his bearings, as long as he’s enthusiastic enough.
“Lucky for you,” Quiscalus says, “I’m no more inclined to say no to you than you are to me.” He rubs the pad of his thumb over the head of his cock, swiping off a bead of precome as he does so, and presses it between Nathan’s lips.
Nathan accepts it eagerly, sucking his thumb clean with a teasing flick of his tongue. There’s a slightly herbal taste in addition to the bitterness he’d expected, and heat prickles across his scalp and down his neck as he swallows, leaving a tingly, effervescent sensation behind.
Quiscalus smiles, watching Nathan intently as he pulls his thumb away. “Do you feel it?”
“I feel something,” Nathan says. “I don’t… I’m not sure what it is.”
“It’s perfectly safe,” Quiscalus tells him. “It heightens pleasure and amplifies dreams.”
Quiscalus guides Nathan between his thighs, brushing the head of his cock over his lower lip. Nathan licks reflexively, and once again that unusual herbal taste is followed by a wave of tingling warmth that leaves him feeling slightly fuzzy-headed.
“Is…” Nathan stares at the slightly iridescent sheen of the precome smeared across the head of Quiscalus’ cock. “Is your dick drugged?”
“That’s the simplest way to explain it, I suppose,” Quiscalus says. “It’s safe. You’re safe.”
Nathan wonders if he should be more concerned by this, but at this point, he’s already accepted enough impossible things as fact that one more doesn’t particularly make a difference. The warmth spreading through him feels good already; he feels his arousal growing and the remaining scraps of anxiety about the situation starting to fade.
“Please tell me I won’t overdose if you come in my mouth,” he says, cradling Quiscalus’ cock in his hand. It’s hot and heavy in his grip, not much longer than the loose cradle of Nathan’s hand but thick enough that his fingers barely meet his palm around it.
Quiscalus looks pleased. “Would you like me to?”
“Fuck yes.” Nathan gives his cock a few slow strokes as he kisses his way from his thigh to the base of his shaft. “Would you?”
Quiscalus nods. “It’s safe,” he says again. “It wouldn’t be too much for you.”
“Hell yeah,” Nathan murmurs. “I would have gotten high a lot more often when I was younger if I had known you could get there by sucking a guy off.” This may be nearly as rough on his throat as smoking, in some ways, but he’s sure it’ll be far more enjoyable. He licks his lips, holds Quiscalus’ intent gaze, and sucks the head of his cock messily into his mouth.
That herbal taste from before is stronger now, but it certainly isn’t unpleasant; above all, though, a dick is a dick, no matter how it tastes, and Nathan’s just happy to have a particularly attractive specimen in his mouth. He moans happily, curling his tongue around the head as he focuses on relaxing his jaw.
“Oh,” Quiscalus breathes, his thighs tensing beneath Nathan’s hands as if he’s doing his best to keep from thrusting into his mouth. “I wanted to pleasure you, but this really is what you love, isn’t it? I can tell already.” One large hand comes to rest on the crown of Nathan’s head, fingers curling just enough to heighten the hot prickle that’s once again spreading across his scalp. “Do you think you can take all of me?”
“I hope so,” Nathan says, pulling away just long enough to respond. “Never sucked a dick as big as yours, though. Hope it won’t be too disappointing if I can’t manage it.”
“You’re no disappointment,” Quiscalus scolds him lightly. He tightens his grip in Nathan’s hair, tuggling gently in encouragement as he takes Quiscalus’ cock into his mouth again. “You—oh yes, see?” He sighs and rocks gently up into Nathan’s mouth, stopping just short of triggering his gag reflex. “You’re doing so well already.”
Nathan moans at the praise, a thick, desperate sound stifled by Quiscalus’ cock. The tingle in his head is slowly becoming a pleasant blurriness, narrowing his focus down to the weight of a cock on his tongue and a hand on his head and his desire to please. Here at the end of the weirdest day of his life, he still has far more questions than answers, but they feel less pressing every moment. The tension building in his jaw dissipates as a warm, heavy fog fills his mind, and he and Quiscalus groan in unison as his nose nudges against his pubic hair.
“Perfect,” Quiscalus says, cupping Nathan’s cheek in his hand as he swallows messily around Quiscalus’ cock. “I knew you could. How do you feel?” He doesn’t seem to expect a verbal response, which is just as well since Nathan’s wholly incapable of giving one, but the shaky sound he makes and the way his eyes flutter shut when Quiscalus tugs his hair a little more roughly than before seem to be enough of an answer to please him.
“Good, good,” Quiscalus says. He holds Nathan in place briefly, rolling his hips to press deeper into Nathan’s mouth. “You’ll tell me if it’s too much, won’t you?”
Nathan groans and squeezes Quiscalus’ thigh in acknowledgement. It should be too much already, he knows it should, but instead he’s burning with arousal, wishing Quiscalus would pull his hair more roughly or force himself deeper until he starts to gag. He doesn’t usually like to be fucked like this, but now he’s desperate for more. He doesn’t know if it’s because he’s steadily becoming more intoxicated or that he’s so flattered by Quiscalus’ attention that his usual preferences no longer apply; most likely, it’s a bit of both.
Quiscalus is careful with him to an extent, clearly holding back from pushing Nathan too hard, but he isn’t gentle; he guides Nathan as he pleases, sometimes holding his head still while thrusting into the welcoming heat of his mouth and sometimes moving him at a slow, steady pace. He tells Nathan he’s lovely with a cock in his mouth, that he’s so glad Nathan arrived at the right time, that he feels selfish fucking him like this but couldn’t resist when Nathan asked so sweetly.
His words blur together at some point, their meaning registering only distantly as Nathan loses himself in a pleasurable haze. He understands enough to know he’s being praised; any detail beyond that fact seems both unimportant and impossible to discern.
“Dear one,” Quiscalus gasps, after several minutes, “I’m close, do you still—”
Nathan nods as best as he can, moaning in anticipation as Quiscalus’ cock throbs against his tongue. Quiscalus cradles Nathan’s face surprisingly gently as he comes, breathing heavily as he floods Nathan’s mouth.
The effect is immediate. After he swallows, Nathan’s hit with a wave of vertigo so disorienting that he can only lie limply while Quiscalus curls up behind him, slipping an arm beneath Nathan’s head and petting his chest while he waits for the sensation to pass. When it does, he feels pleasantly floaty in its wake, loose-limbed and eager for more.
“You did so well,” Quiscalus tells him, curling his hand around Nathan’s cock, and he laughs as it twitches in his hand at the praise. “Do you like hearing that?”
“I… yes,” Nathan says, still trying to get his bearings. “I’m glad you… yeah.”
“Do you like this?” Quiscalus squeezes Nathan’s cock before he begins to stroke it slowly, teasingly. “I’d like to take my time with you.”
Nathan whines, a noise he’d find deeply embarrassing if he was sober enough to be aware of it. “Feels good,” he manages, after a moment. “Please.” He doesn’t quite remember the question, but he knows the answer is yes.
“You were away too long,” Quiscalus murmurs, lips brushing the shell of Nathan’s ear as he speaks. “I missed you.” Nathan tries to apologize, but Quiscalus shushes him, shifting slightly so he can kiss Nathan’s neck. “You didn’t know,” he says. “I know you didn’t. You were with someone else, the last time I saw you. I was jealous.”
“Mel,” Nathan says, with considerable effort. His thoughts are moving slowly now; it’s difficult to think of anything beyond this moment, beyond the heavy, almost painful weight of his cock in Quiscalus’ hand and the pleasure rippling through every nerve.
“I almost came to you then,” Quiscalus tells him. He’s hard again, and he presses his erection into the back of Nathan’s thighs, murmuring approval when Nathan lifts his leg just enough for Quiscalus to slip his cock between them. “I wanted to take you in front of him.”
“Fuck,” Nathan pants. “Yes, I—I would have.” He turns his head as far back as he can, catching Quiscalus’ mouth in a sloppy, uncoordinated kiss. “I would have let you.”
He sees it in half-formed images: Quiscalus telling him what a good cocksucker he is, biting dark bruises into his neck, fucking roughly into him from behind, all while Nathan holds Mel’s gaze, daring him to look away. He’s never been an exhibitionist, never thought of being fucked in front of someone else as anything but an exercise in mortification, but now the thought fills him with a wave of hot, aching desire.
Quiscalus bites down on Nathan’s shoulder and thrusts roughly between his thighs, matching the rhythm of his hand as he strokes Nathan’s cock. “You’d let me do anything to you right now, wouldn’t you?”
Nathan nods. He reaches between his thighs, rubbing and stroking the head of Quiscalus’ cock when it peeks between them. It’s a clumsy motion; his hands barely feel like they belong to him at all, but he still wants to touch him however he can.
“Good boy,” Quiscalus purrs in his ear. “Do you want to come?”
“Please.” Nathan squirms in his grip, trying to thrust more quickly into Quiscalus’ hand, but he takes his hand away entirely, bracing it on Nathan’s hip for more leverage as he continues fucking his thighs.
“Let me,” Quiscalus says, waiting for Nathan to still his movements before he starts stroking his cock again. “Trust me to give you what you need.”
“I do,” Nathan says. He leans his head against Quiscalus’ shoulder and closes his eyes, focusing on the sweet ache of his arousal and the firm, practiced grip of Quiscalus’ hand as he slowly works Nathan to climax.
Nathan shakes and cries out as he comes, overwhelmed by the intensity of his orgasm. It feels like an explosion in slow motion, the moment stretching out impossibly long as Quiscalus bites down on his shoulder and climaxes again as well.
Quiscalus rolls Nathan onto his back and bends over him, quickly licking his own release from Nathan’s thighs before kissing him deeply. The herbal taste of his come floods Nathan’s mouth, bringing with it the now-familiar rush of heat and effervescent pleasure. It sinks more deeply into Nathan’s body, now, making his limbs feel both impossibly heavy and as if they belong to someone else entirely.
It’s pleasure, still, buzzing and rippling through every nerve, but it’s both immediately present and impossibly distant, both an ocean surrounding him and a cloud he sees drifting overhead. “I don’t think,” he slurs, tongue thick and graceless in his mouth, “I don’t think I can move anymore.”
“You don’t need to,” Quiscalus murmurs, petting his thighs, his hip, the soft swell of his belly. “You’ve done so well, love. You were perfect. Relax, and dream of me. Feel me with you.”
Nathan laughs weakly at this, clumsily reaching for Quiscalus with a hand that no longer feels like his own. He registers the pressure of Quiscalus’ fingers as he slots them together, and the low rumble of words he can’t quite make out, and then nothing at all.
Nathan’s pulled from sleep by a harsh, sudden sound, a creak that repeats every few seconds until he blearily opens his eyes and pushes himself onto his elbows, peering out of the mesh door of his tent. He sees a small wisp of smoke coming from the firepit and feels a brief stab of panic. Had he forgotten to put out the fire out the night before? He doesn’t remember doing so, but he doesn’t remember building one in the first place, either. Had he eaten dinner at all, after setting up camp? The last thing he remembers is—
“Oh shit,” Nathan breathes, slumping back down as pieces of the night before filter in through the faint fog still lingering in his head. His mind dredges up a few hazy images—Quiscalus pulling Nathan’s hair as he spills down his throat, murmuring praise as he works two fingers into Nathan’s ass, kneeling over Nathan’s ragdoll-limp body and ejaculating on his face—but whether these are memories, dreams, or drugged hallucinations, he isn’t sure. The faint ache radiating from both his jaw and his bite-covered shoulder makes it clear that much of what he remembers must have been real. He’s fully naked, and a clean set of clothes is folded at the foot of his sleeping bag. Had he put them there? He doesn’t remember.
When Nathan steps outside of his tent, he finds the campsite has returned to its usual state. No honeysuckles or blackberry bushes wind between the pines, which are no longer pressed so close together that he can’t see deeper into the forest. Only a few small patches of moss peek out from the fallen pine needles that cover most of the bare dirt of the clearing.
He approaches the firepit, where both his percolator and a small cooking pot have been tucked into the still-glowing coals; looking inside, he finds freshly made coffee and oatmeal. He brings them to the makeshift table, which is set with a mug and spoon from his mess kit, as well as a small bowl woven from pine needles containing a handful of blackberries with an iridescent river iris laid over top. He half-expects to see Quiscalus sitting at the table or walking out of the woods, sipping coffee out of his spare mug, but there’s no sign of him.
“Most guys who fuck and run wouldn’t bother to make me breakfast first,” he mutters to himself, as he fills his mug with coffee. “Guess I’m in no position to complain.”
Nathan eats his breakfast slowly, throwing a berry into his oatmeal every few bites and cradling the mug in both hands as he drinks his coffee and stares into the forest. He doesn’t know what to think about what had happened the night before. How could he? Most of the details are fuzzy past the point where he’d started to get high off of Quiscalus’ dick—and how the fuck is he supposed to just go on living his normal life now that he knows that’s possible?—but he remembers plenty. He just doesn’t know how to fit any of those details into his previous understanding of the world.
The harsh creaking sound that had woken him suddenly returns, called out three times from the edge of the forest before a grackle swoops out of a nearby tree and lands on the table, just out of reach.
“Good morning,” Nathan says to it, in an effort to be polite. “You, uh. You aren’t him, are you?”
The grackle tilts its head, regarding Nathan closely as if expecting something from him. No clear yes is probably a no, but he has no idea how he’d be able to tell either way.
“If you see him,” Nathan tells the bird, “tell him thanks. And, uh. Good luck with the baby, I guess.”
The grackle lets out a burst of sound, a harsh cht-cht-cht that sounds a little like laughter. He shrugs and takes another bite of oatmeal; it’s a pathetic message, but what else could he possibly add? What do you say after time spent with… A god? A spirit? Nathan has no fucking clue what the morning-after etiquette for such a figure could be, even if he was more certain about who, exactly, he’d spent the night with.
He eats a few more bites in silence while the bird watches, but eventually he notices its attention drifting to the berries in the shallow bowl. “One more try?” Nathan asks, holding up a blackberry to catch the bird’s attention and miming throwing it. The grackle ruffles its feathers and hops forward in apparent excitement.
Nathan lobs the berry in a gentle arc and the grackle takes flight after it, neatly catching it in one claw as it swoops from the table to a nearby tree. It wedges the berry into a fork between branches and pecks at it eagerly, flying away without a look back after devouring it all.
The woven bowl is the last thing Nathan packs, wrapping it loosely in a spare shirt and tucking it into the top of his hiking pack where it’s least likely to get crushed. He twirls the stem of the river iris between his fingers, admiring the play of color across its velvety petals before tucking it behind his ear. Somehow he’s sure it’ll look as pristine as it does now by the time he gets home, and he wonders how long it’ll last in a mason jar of water in his kitchen. Maybe long enough for him to make a plan to return.