“Crikey,” Chrissy Peveril said, barefoot and slightly breathless from hauling the boat up onto the sand. “Not exactly the Riviera, what? No wonder nobody lives here.”
Leo had never been anywhere near the Riviera, but he couldn’t imagine it looked much like this. Liverston Island: a lumped mass of grey sand and bare earth poking out of the Cornish sea, humped at one end and prickled all over with pitch-dark pines.
He had spent every second of their approach in frozen terror, convinced that they were seconds from dashing the dinghy to pieces on the island’s fringe of jagged rocks and getting themselves stuck out there for good. And now they were there– Well, he almost wondered why they’d bothered. The place could hardly have been less welcoming — any more barren, more stale.
It rather reminded Leo of work, actually — the airless sterility of the library, the tomb-like stillness of the subterranean stacks. Everything that he had rather feebly hoped Ralph’s nonchalant telegram of invitation would allow him to escape for a handful of days. But the cold grey sand already clinging to his boots, settling on his clothes, looked exactly like the patina of dust that clung to the books and bones and boxes of ancient rubbish that he handled every day.
In fact, the whole island looked to be made of dust, or ashes. Out of the mausoleum, Leo thought, ruefully, and into the actual bloody urn.
But that was the whole point, wasn’t it, of what Ralph kept insisting on calling his expedition? His voyage of entomological discovery. Ralph, at least, was here on the hunt, and the more unusual the terrain, the less appealing to other researchers, the more likely he was to find the tiny brand-new creature that would secure a place for the Peveril name in the annals of natural history.
Well, this beach certainly looked bizarre enough. Perhaps he would find a sandfly, right now, and they could turn around and go home.
“Shall I run on ahead and scout out somewhere to set up camp?” Chrissy was asking, already re-shod and raring to go. “No sense lugging everything about till we know where we’re going.”
Ralph had been filling his pipe, and bending a speculative eye towards the island, and generally not looking like he was about to lug anything about, at all, ever. “Astonishingly bright idea, Chrissy,” he said, and gave his brother a hearty clap on the shoulder. “Somewhere flat, mind, with space for two tents. Off you pop.”
And there, that was the difference between Leo’s customary haunts and Liverston. Back in Cambridge, he could spend weeks skulking between his office and his shabby backstreet bedsit without ever exchanging more than a few words with another living soul. He rather liked it that way: There was a reason, after all, that since his arrival at college he had chosen to head deeper and deeper into the grim bowels of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. To a sensitive nineteen-year-old still smarting from the grubby intimacy of boarding school, those silent stacks full of shattered remains had seemed a heaven. Yes, it was dusty. Yes, it was dull. But it was all so much easier than living, breathing, laughing, fighting, spitting humanity. Desiccated Celts never turned their empty eye-sockets on you and sneered at your bowling action, or your home address; Viking chieftains never climbed out of their Hoos in the middle of the night, stole your trousers and threw them out of the dormitory window. The dead kept themselves to themselves.
Eight years later, and Leo had written a couple of fairly undistinguished papers, been credited on several more, started work on a staggeringly niche doctoral thesis — and completely forgotten how to talk to other human beings. Habit had reinforced temperament. His natural veneer of timidity had become a thick wall of reserve. Time and again, he had felt it crop up between himself and others, the rest of the world: when his landlady barrelled towards him armed with early morning pleasantries; when his colleagues limply extended an academic joke in the dining hall or invited him out for drinks. On the infrequent occasions that he would catch an eye in the right kind of pub, then get home and discover that his new friend expected to chat rather than simply getting on with things.
He could hear it in his own voice — the hesitancy, the fear of ridicule or disdain; he could hear it making his words quiet and awkward. He could feel it turning everything sour and wrong, could watch his unfortunate acquaintances lose interest, draw away — stung or shy or simply bored. He could feel it all, and yet he could not seem to do anything at all to overcome it, to break down that wall and just do things right.
He’d stopped trying. Why bother, when it was so much easier to be stiff and cold and risk nothing? So far it hadn’t served him too badly. He didn’t need to be friends with his landlady; he didn’t need to be liked by his colleagues. And the people — men — he met in bars … well, they weren’t coming home with him for his conversation. That particular equation was already fraught with enough danger; why invite more by making those evenings out to be anything more than an impersonal release of tension?
The crush and clamour of the train, the head-down hurry to meet Ralph and his brother at the dock, even the crossing in the little dinghy with its two other occupants: it had all felt almost hideously intimate. Leo had spent the whole day sunk in social horror, mouth stopped, skin prickling, palms sweating.
He was not sure how he was going to cope with the two tents of it all.
The black rocks leading up inland shone slickly in spots, still wet from the receding sea: a daunting, sharp-edged scramble. Leo felt a familiar prickle of foreboding at the sight of them, the same old musty feeling in his mouth. The notion of a stumble — a slip, a cry, a wet spill of red in the sand, a pale flash of bone — was sickening enough that it inspired him to grant Chrissy Peveril a complete sentence, the first of their very short acquaintance.
“Careful,” he said, “this would be a fine place to break an ankle.”
Chrissy laughed as though he thought Leo was joking, and was away. Leo watched the red flash of his jersey get smaller as he jogged up to the nearest boulder and went slipping and scrambling upwards with the easy, hectic grace of a mountain goat.
He felt the same twinge he always felt at unthinking displays of physical daring: half admiration, half comfortable scorn. Bravery was impressive in the abstract but — well, it was drawn-out self-destruction, nothing more. Leo preferred to live, unimpressively.
“Better start unloading our junk,” Ralph said, and then continued to stand there smoking. Leo started unloading their junk.
“Useful sort of chap to have around, your brother,” he remarked, because he thought it might possibly please Ralph. Now that it was just the two of them, he could feel himself relax a little. An odd notion: He was probably the only person who had ever relaxed upon being left alone with Ralph Peveril. But then he had spent more time with Ralph over the course of his life — five years boarding, and then three more in the same digs at college — than with anybody else. God, that was an even odder notion.
Ralph let out one of his high, goatish barks of laughter. “Useful! I don’t think anybody has ever accused Chrissy of being that. He’s got a pair of legs and lives almost entirely by reflex, so naturally he went down a storm at school and the varsity. Cricket, tennis, rugger — the lot. Perfect little acolyte to the great god of Sports: just brainless enough to really do well. But he’ll never make it as a first-class athlete, because he simply doesn’t care enough about winning. I’m not sure he’s capable of caring about anything, except having a jolly nice time.” He chewed ruminatively at the end of his pipe, a pale smile dancing around the edges of his lips — exactly the same amused, assessing look he’d always worn while poking at his tiny specimens, learning all their tricks before he pinned them and put them under glass. “You know, he once broke a finger during a cricket match and played on till tea? Didn’t want to make a fuss, he said. More likely he didn’t even notice, poor little brick.”
He cut a look at Leo. “I won’t be telling him you said that, by the by. Dangerously close to praise, old boy. You do know, I suppose, that he used to worship you at school? Just worship you.”
Leo almost fumbled a bag of tent-poles, hit by a wave of the sweaty horror that thinking of school always brought on. And worse, the thought of anybody taking notice of him then, as he was, gangly, scowling, unfinished– He fought a spiritual shudder, as though his soul were trying to peel itself away from his exterior, to shrink down and hide.
Chrissy was — what? Four, five years younger? If Leo remembered him at all, it was as a towheaded blur in amongst a pack of indistinguishable small boys, dashing through the quad or whispering in chapel. But then the lower years seemed always to move in packs — the kind of great, sharp-eyed, fidgeting mass that still brought Leo out in a cold sweat. He’d tried to keep himself as aloof from the new bugs as possible. He’d tried to keep himself as aloof from everybody as possible. It was why he was so tolerant of Ralph. Ralph tended to act as a natural deterrent to social overtures, the way acid repelled oil.
Leo had never quite worked out why Ralph was so tolerant of him. He had always been a little afraid to probe the matter.
Ralph was looking at him now, his pale eyes alight with amusement at Leo’s evident discomfort. It was always possible, of course, that he had made the whole thing up, simply to discomfort.
Leo wondered. “I didn’t know,” he said, honestly. “I don’t remember him.”
Ralph laughed again. “Now that I might tell him. Do him the world of good.” He looked back up the beach; Chrissy himself had reappeared, and was heading towards them at speed, feet kicking up lively little sprays of sand.
“No,” Ralph said, in the manner of one concluding a keynote address. “I don’t know what we’re going to do with Chrissy. If he had any sense, he’d have died young and tragic, or let somebody cast him in bronze and stayed a schoolboy forever. But he missed his moment, and now he’s out there with the rest of the not-so-bright young things, cluttering up society.”
Chrissy skidded to a stop in front of them and put his hands on his hips, looking wholesome and windswept and generally not unlike the plucky hero of a Boy’s Own story. Or, Leo thought fleetingly, a golden retriever, all honey-blond and bouncy. “What’s cluttering up society?” Chrissy asked, panting.
“You are, chum.”
Chrissy gave another bright peal of laughter, and this time it sounded as though he thought Ralph must be joking. Perhaps he was: It was always rather difficult to tell. “Right,” Chrissy said, implacable. “I’ve found a brilliant spot and a nice sandy path suitable for the aged. Congratulate me, please.”
Then he looked at Leo, who was grappling with the one truly cumbersome item of luggage: Ralph’s specimen trunk. He frowned, just slightly, tawny brows pinching together; for a second Leo assumed he was the frown’s target, and felt a rush of cold dismay, his mind scrambling to see what he might have done to earn disdain so quickly.
But Chrissy only turned to his brother. “I say, you’re not making Leo cart your beastly great bag about, are you? Doesn’t seem very fair to me.”
Ralph was already striding off, pipe — and nothing else — in hand. “Paxton’s a big boy, Chips,” he called back, breezily, “as I’m sure you’ve noticed. Do you hear him complaining?”
Chrissy looked cowed, but when he came over to pick up his own battered rucksack there was still an air of gentle mutiny about him, and he gave Leo an earnest sort of look.
It was amazing how different he was from his brother, Leo thought — shorter, broader in the shoulder, and looking, on the whole, less like he had spent any time in libraries wearing tweed and reading about insects. All shirtsleeves and shorts and sunny days spent at the wicket. But the biggest difference was the eyes: brown rather than blue, lively rather than piercing.
They softened his fine-boned face, gave it a friendly, inquisitive look. More terrier than retriever, Leo thought, and then felt obscurely shabby.
“Do you mind?” Chrissy asked, quietly.
Leo hadn’t really thought about it: Being Ralph’s singular friend had always involved a certain amount of involuntary servitude. It was easy to fall back into it. He rather assumed that his invitation was dependent on his willingness to do so.
“Not especially,” he managed, and then, too curious not to: “Chips?”
Chrissy grimaced handsomely. “Chips,” he said. “There was a brief and painful period, or so I’m told, where it was the best job an infant Ralph could make of Christopher. Chrissy seems like a positive blessing, in comparison.”
Leo astonished himself with a burst of loquacity: “Not like Ralph to admit incompetence.”
“No.” Chrissy gave him an amused, speculative glance and knocked their shoulders together, just gently enough that Leo managed not to flinch. “I don’t think he was trying very hard. Look, how about we take this big one together?”
The tents looked rather peculiar against the island’s raw planes: huddled and ungainly. They billowed in and out with the breeze like a crinkled pair of lungs.
Leo was just banging in the last of the tent-pegs, the noise terrifically loud over the hushing of the waves, when there was another sound close at hand — a squawk of discovery.
Ralph had been diligently supervising the digging out of a firepit, but now he was bending over the pile of shifted dirt, sifting through it and rising, with something in his hand.
“The first find,” he said, portentously, “of the expedition. Paxton! Over here. You’ll like this.”
Leo obeyed the summons. Ralph held out his prize. It lay there in his hand and seemed almost to glimmer, sheened all over and wickedly translucent at the edges: a wide shard of knapped flint, some four inches long, with a stub of carved bone for a handle.
“Oh,” Leo said, stupidly. “Oh, that is interesting, Ralph.”
“Yes,” said the discoverer. “You can probably write reams of drivel about it: You better remember to credit me, old boy. Ancient, I suppose?”
Leo was generously allowed a closer look. “It certainly looks it,” he said. “Probably a genuine Liffreastow relic.”
Chrissy had stopped shovelling and come to peer at the thing too. “What’s that mean?” he asked. “Oh — like Liverston?” Leo glanced at him, surprised; Chrissy obviously caught him looking, and laughed. “No?” he said, cheerfully. “Wrong end of the stick again? Thought I might be having one of my rare flashes of genius.”
“Right end of the stick,” Leo said, hurriedly, and scrabbled desperately for something to say that wasn’t but I was told you were brainless. “Precisely right, Chrissy. It — I — Liffreastow. Anglo-Saxon name. Literally, it means something like God-haunted — most historians translate it as closer to land of plenty or blessed place.”
Chrissy looked at Leo, then around at the expanse of dusty grey and brown all around them, and gave a minute frown. His golden brows pinched together; his nose wrinkled. “Was it,” he said, a little tentatively, “a joke?”
Now it was Leo’s turn to surprise: He found himself huffing out a laugh. “Probably not,” he said. “I mean, we don’t know. There’s yet to be a proper dig out here, and the actual island population didn’t go in for writing things down. But from the way the contemporary authors — Roman occupiers, and so on — do talk about it, it really does seem to have been regarded by the mainland Britons as– well, something rather special. Unusually prosperous, and … holy, in some way.”
“God-haunted,” Chrissy said, softly, as though he was trying the words for taste. “Not the jolly old Our Father, I take it? But what happened to it? It looks dead.”
“Well, really, Chips,” Ralph broke in. He’d been turning his find over and over, a light of satisfaction in his eyes. “That was a long time ago. What do you think happened to an unusually prosperous little place, inhabited by a handful of god-botherers? They were invaded. Crushed. Let that be a lesson to you: Do not bring devotion to a knife-fight.” He spared the scrubby waste around them a rather scornful glance. “And when they were too busy being killed to concentrate on sacrificing one another, the plenty all dried up.”
Chrissy looked up at his brother, sharply. “Sacrifice?” he said. “You don’t mean– Here?”
“Obviously, imbecile. What do you think this“ –Ralph gave his find a flourish– “was for? Peeling apples?”
Leo felt Chrissy’s inquiring eyes upon him again, and realised, with a warm little shock, that he was being appealed to as an expert authority. He supposed that he was one.
“It’s just as likely to have been used for peeling apples. There’s a deal too much sacrifice talk among–” Leo stopped himself: He had almost said amateurs, and called the wrath of Ralph down upon his head. “Understandably,” he continued, with more care, “it tends to capture the imagination. But you must remember that these contemporary accounts were all written by outsiders, and when you were an unusually prosperous little place that wanted to avoid conflict, it paid to have as off-putting a reputation as possible. And then when all that prosperity fizzled up it cemented the superstition, and naturally the invaders put it down to the cessation in sacrifice. It’s entirely possible that the inhabitants of Liffreastow spent more time expressing their devotion through gardening than sacrifice, and would have seen it exactly the way we do now: With no one here to look after it, the land stopped producing.”
He stopped and swallowed. It was the most he’d spoken in a long time. The sensation of being listened to was foreign, and not wholly unpleasant — but he’d come to the end of what he had to say, and he felt his spirit retreat gratefully, like a tortoise into a shell.
“So the place isn’t dead,” Chrissy said, as though the notion pleased him. “Just waiting for a bit of tender care. Might be Lee-vrayah-stow again yet, what?”
Leo’s cheeks felt odd. He was smiling, he realised. Chrissy’s attempt at the pronunciation — slightly halting, but very game — was making him smile.
“You’re not half as rotten a lecturer as I would have guessed, Paxton,” Ralph said, so at least somebody was running true to type. “But I like my explanation better.” He tested the blade with his thumb, and seemed pleased by what he found. “Bit of sacrifice seems much quicker and easier than gardening. One knife stroke and we could chuck it in and live off the fat of the land. Now, I’ll just need a volunteer…”
It seemed more prudent to put the kettle on and open a can or two of beans than rely on the benison of the gods. Chrissy dashed off with a hatchet to find a downed, dryish tree and came back with his arms full of firewood; he flung it all into the pit, flung in a match, flung himself into a collapsible camp-chair, and promptly fell into well-earned sleep. Leo resigned himself to playing chef, wondering vaguely whether Ralph could possibly consider him useful.
Darkness was beginning to fall. The orange glow of Chrissy’s fire was doing odd things to the island, playing with the shadows of the sparse and bony trees, letting them liquidise and leap about. The wind rushed up from the sea and whistled through the branches. Leo didn’t particularly enjoy it.
Perhaps Chrissy disliked it too, because all at once he made a muffled moan in the back of his throat, then another, and began twitching in his sleep.
Ralph caught Leo’s start of alarm.
“Yes,” he said, casually, “quite a show. He’s been having those since the nursery. Well, now you know why you’re bunking together. Hard luck — I shan’t be swapping. Ignore him, if you can. Chuck something at him, if you can’t. Usually does the job.” He paused, swirled his tin mug reflectively, as though it were a glass of red, a faintly ludicrous gesture. “Incredible, isn’t it? To think of Chrissy having nightmares. What does he find to worry about? Fumbling the ball in the last match of the summer and costing his side the cup, I assume. I wish he wouldn’t. Bloody annoying.”
Leo did what he had been doing for years when “in conversation” with Ralph: He kept his head down and made an indistinct noise of acknowledgement.
Chrissy made a little noise of his own — sharp and wounded, like a nipped puppy — and tossed his golden head.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Ralph said. And he went over and gave his brother a frank kick to the shin.
This rude awakening went over about as well as could be expected. Chrissy spasmed, yelped, flailed, and generally did everything short of pitching his chair over backwards and cracking his head open. But he recovered remarkably rapidly, the panic-quick heave of his chest beginning to calm before his brother had even finished laughing at him.
“Christ,” Chrissy said, voice thick with sleep, and gave a laugh of his own. “You’ll be the death of me, Rafs.” Then he jerked his head up, sharply. His eyes lost the last of that dreamland blankness and went bright, wary. “Wasn’t making a racket, was I?”
“Yes,” Ralph replied, blunt and cheerful. “You were. What goes on in that hollow head of yours? Paxton and I have been trying to guess.”
Chrissy laughed again, an edge to it, and suffered a light blush — a rosy little glow that raced right up to the tips of his ears. He darted a glittering look at Leo, and dropped his gaze to the ground. “Oh, nothing,” he said. “Nothing. Or– I don’t remember. You know I never do. Sorry, all. Mortifying.” He pushed the damp mess of his hair from his forehead and bent jerkily to do up his boots.
And Leo found, to his utter astonishment, that he had his mouth open — that he was on the very verge of speech. He had no idea what he might be about to say: he only knew that he didn’t like that glimmer of shame on Chrissy’s face. It looked wrong there. Unnatural. He wanted to say something to erase it.
He sat there for a second, poking at this strange impulse, so foreign to his nature. It felt suspiciously like … chivalry.
Cautiously, he gave Chrissy Peveril a look: side-long, experimental, like a poke at a newly-discovered bruise, or the first hesitant step on a twisted ankle.
Chrissy was staring into the fire, face placid and disarmingly angelic. Archangelic, even, as though one of those stern, sword-bearing Michaels one saw in chancel windows had stepped out of the stained glass and popped on a pair of flannel trousers.
Something drew Leo’s eye — a lively little motion. At some point during their labours, Chrissy had pulled off his jersey and left the collar of his shirt a mess, the left point sticking straight up at the sky: Now the breeze kept playing with it, making it flicker backwards and forwards.
Leo stared. Nothing more than two inches of fabric and a breath of wind, and yet it was enough to have his fingers itching. He wanted to reach over and fix it, to smooth it out, and at the same time he very much wanted to leave it be, to let it persist — to keep looking at it, and everything near it. The pearly rise of Chrissy’s collarbone, and the shadowed dip above it. The soft gleam of sweat on his tanned throat. The flicker of his pulse.
Well, Leo thought, numbly. Fine. Yes.
Precisely as he had suspected.
He turned, very carefully, to look at his plate of beans — and said nothing.
When Leo woke the next morning, the tent was empty. Or, well, he was there, naturally, for whatever that was worth, but the other mat was bare.
He wondered, foggily, whether Chrissy might sleep-walk as well as sleep-moan and sleep-thrash. He wondered whether he might have sleep-walked right off the island. He wondered whether he ought to wake Ralph, and tell him that his brother was missing — possibly lost at sea. He wondered whether Ralph would care.
Fortunately, a bleary-eyed stumble to their freshly dug latrine brought an answer to most of these little mysteries. Movement up ahead, in the trees, and there was Chrissy, hearty and wholesome and awake, coming out of the treeline at a steady, recreational run and heading back towards camp.
For a sportsman he had a strikingly unpolished motion: springy and irregular, a little coltish. It caught the eye. Or it caught Leo’s eye, at any rate.
It took a minute for him to register that Chrissy wasn’t alone, not quite. There was a small, dark blur skimming over the rocks next to him — shadowing him, and reflecting him, the same sprightly movements, the same attitude of wild cheer. Leo stopped staring at Chrissy and started staring at that shape. Was that–
Chrissy seemed set to pass right by, but then he glanced up and did a very comical sort of double-take: He drew to a skidding stop, legs in a tangle and feet throwing up dust. There was a second where it looked like he might go over, and then Leo’s arms had flung themselves out, and his hands were full of flushed and panting athlete.
The sharp, instant heat of him — his bare arms, his heaving chest through his undershirt — felt almost like a rebuke, like the acid crack of a ruler to Leo’s palms. But Chrissy was smiling, laughing, exhaling hot gusts of breath against his cheek, and Leo was too dazed to snatch his hands back.
It was Chrissy who extricated himself, gave Leo a clap on the chest and stumbled away, puffing hard, hands on his hips. “Morning,” he said, still a bit of a laugh to it. “Getting in my physical jerks. Lovely weather for it.”
He was all freshness and pep in his running get-up — white shirt, white shorts, legs bare and golden below the knee. Lithe and warm and happy. When he moved, Leo could see a flash of milk-soft thigh, untouched by the sun. He could see the muscles jumping in Chrissy’s calves.
“Good morning,” Leo said, stupidly.
The blur had stopped too — Leo forced himself to note it — and had resolved into a plump, furry shape with black and bottomless eyes. It sat there on the stones, looking at them, its tiny nose twitching. A rabbit.
“Yes,” Chrissy said, following Leo’s gaze. He still sounded winded, and gently puzzled. “Jolly little chap. Been following me since shortly after I set off. Splendid company — precisely what I needed.” He looked back up at Leo, brow pinched. “Bit … rum though, isn’t it?”
The rabbit quivered inscrutably. Was it a rabbit? A hare? Leo didn’t know, but it looked bigger than any he’d ever seen, and different, somehow — put together strangely.
“Where did it come from?” he heard himself say, distantly. “There’s nothing here. What does it live on?”
“Well,” Chrissy said, and looked about with an air of helplessness. “Grass, I suppose?”
There were a couple of brave clumps of grass dotted sparsely along the track, and it was almost thick on the uphill creep that led into the trees — shiny, glutted with dew. When had that sprung up? Leo could have sworn it was all bare yesterday.
The rabbit raised its front paws and lolloped implacably closer, right up to Chrissy’s left tennis shoe. Then it leaned over, black eyes almost defiantly blank, and nuzzled at his ankle.
Chrissy went very still, and made a startled little noise in his throat. “My God,” he said, voice hoarse.
Moving slowly and deliberately, like one enchanted, Chrissy crouched and held a tentative hand beside the creature’s head. Its nose twitched minutely, and then — without losing that obscure self-possession, that steadiness — it seemed to lean into his fingers.
Chrissy laughed, and looked up at Leo. “He likes me,” he whispered. “God, this is — this is terrific.”
His face was soft and sunny with awe, and Leo was beginning to suspect that when Chrissy said things like that — splendid, brilliant, terrific — he might actually mean them. Not in the shallow, bloodless way that most people did, but really, truly mean them. Chrissy might be capable of more feeling in one day than Leo, with his dusty, shrinking heart, would manage in a lifetime.
Yes, Leo thought, and carefully turned his eyes away from the miracle before him to look down at the yellow-grey dirt by the toe of his boot. You’re very likeable, Chrissy.
And he began, carefully, methodically, with self-amused resignation, to do what he should have done last night. To fold up the feeling, the tiny flare of want, and put it away, just as he would box up any other useless piece of rubbish and consign it to the stacks.
This one was almost worth displaying, actually; it was almost a curiosity. Simple, vibrant, utterly normal Chrissy Peveril, exactly the kind of person with whom Leo would never, under usual circumstances, exchange a single word, a single look. Ralph’s little brother. God.
Impossible, comfortingly so. Leo basked in the impossibility. It gave him a kind of austere pleasure to turn away, so cleanly, so decisively, from the pathetic pawings of hope. To stand there feeling steady and sane and rational. Safe.
“Oh,” Chrissy said, still petting meekly at his new friend. “I found something, in the trees. Come and tell me what it is, will you?”
“I might not know,” Leo replied — steadily, sanely — to the dirt.
Then he looked back up. Chrissy was giving him one of those eager smiles, and for the first time Leo noticed something startling in it. It lay deep down, below the bright simplicity, and made it brighter and warmer. More personal. A kind of friendly impudence.
“But Leo,” Chrissy said. “You know everything.”
And Leo didn’t feel quite so safe, after all.
What Chrissy had found was a clearing, high up on the hill. It might well have been the top, the highest point on the island; the air was sloppy with mist, and there was a tang of altitude to it. Dim purple light filtered through the trees and clung oddly to everything it fell on. The dark soil seemed raw after the slippery carpet of pine-needles that had lain between the trees on the climb: It stuck to Leo’s boots.
The whole place had the dank, fertile atmosphere of some deep cave, or a root cellar — the same sense of hushed potential, of change waiting in darkness.
It was strange to stand up there and hear the sea’s rhythmic crash, without being able to see the waves. It could have been anything. An endless round of mortar-fire. An immense heartbeat.
At the centre of the clearing stood a rock, a little taller than waist height and at least six feet across, so white it seemed to glow. It protruded from the earth as though something vast and bony had stirred in subterranean sleep, and poked an elbow out of the loamy blanket. At present it had Chrissy Peveril perched on top of it, golden calves dangling over the side. He’d taken the last leg of the climb at a run, and was leaning back on locked arms with an air of triumphant exhaustion.
“A rock,” said Ralph, who had deigned to join them and spent the entire climb vocally doubting that Chrissy had found anything at all. “Well, that makes it all worth it. Fantastic, Chips.”
“Not just a rock,” Chrissy said, with modest dignity. “There’s something on it, I think.”
There was something on it: symbols, each a hand span high, scraped deep into the uneven surface, stark and weighty with age and obscure meaning. They looked both ancient and … patient. As though they had been waiting a long time to be read.
“Well?” Ralph said.
Chrissy was looking to Leo too, all bright-eyed expectancy.
“I’m not an expert,” Leo said, made itchy and abrupt by the weight of so much attention. “I’ve never seen that first set before at all. But I suppose it looks a little like land. Island, perhaps. So… The island chooses.” He crouched and ran his fingers along the lines. “We offer. Life from death.” He paused, heard what he had said. In the cool dankness of the clearing, meaning seemed suddenly to cleave to the dry words like flesh to the bone. “Or something like that.”
“Oh.” Ralph’s gaze glittered with pale excitement. “Too much talk of sacrifice, my arse.” He slapped a hand down on his brother’s knee, making Chrissy start, and smiled unpleasantly. “Imagine that, Chips,” he said. “Hundreds of poor saps just like you, held down and torn open right where you’re sitting now.”
Leo’s stomach gave a shivery lurch: he heard Chrissy’s throat click dryly as he swallowed.
“My God,” Chrissy breathed, eyes huge and distant. “That’s rather horrid. I shouldn’t have sat up here if I’d known — doesn’t seem decent. Let me down, will you?”
He shifted under his brother’s hand, and Leo realised that Ralph wasn’t just tapping him demonstratively. He was pinning him in place with more force than Chrissy — vigorous, athletic, fundamentally good-natured Chrissy — was willing to exert to break free.
“Why?” There was laughter in Ralph’s voice. “Getting frightened, Chrissy? Can you hear the singing? Can you smell the blood? Terrible, isn’t it? For the victims. Rather splendid for the priest, I should think. They’d hold you down, one at each limb probably, or perhaps they’d have bound your hands. If you were lucky, you’d be too doped-up to do more than track the fall of the knife; if you were really lucky, they’d put a hand over your eyes. But you’d still feel it go in. No getting away from that. Bite of flint at your throat and shower of hot blood and you’re done, old boy.”
It was the worst kind of sensationalist claptrap. No basis whatsoever in academic fact.
Leo could not keep from picturing it.
White robes and smoke; a metallic sting to the night air. Chrissy, bound, garlanded, his eyes dark and glassy — shifting listlessly against cold stone and staring up at the indifferent stars. Blinking slowly and uncomprehendingly as smiling strangers put their hands on him: his ankles, his shoulders, fisted in his hair. His uncertain, reflexive smile in return. The slick glint of torchlight on flint, and the ecstasy of the priest.
“Laying it on a bit thick, aren’t you, Peveril?” he heard himself say, voice rougher than usual.
“Oh, just a bit of fun.” With a final hearty slap, Ralph let his brother go. Chrissy swung himself forward and jumped into the dirt.
They all stayed there for a moment, and stared at it — at the altar — as it gleamed sickly in the queer cold light.
“Really, that translation’s little better than a guess.” Leo didn’t know who he was trying to reassure. Himself, possibly. His head was still full of heady, horrible visions; his voice still came out hoarse. “Nobody understands the grammar of the dialect: We simply haven’t found enough examples to formalise it. My cases could be entirely skewed. Offer might be reflexive — we offer ourselves, or more like we worship. Island could be genitive — island’s chosen, possibly. I don’t know. And that last word might not be death at all. It has all sorts of recorded meanings, and several speculative ones.”
Words seemed so frail next to the insistent solidity of the bone-white thing before them.
“Actual physical evidence,” Leo went on, feebly, “tends to suggest that most rites in druidic communities were fundamentally metaphorical. It may be describing a much more spiritual sort of exchange than we’re imagining.”
He ran out of reassurance, and fell silent.
“What I’d like to know,” said Ralph, wandering around to the other side and giving the thing a speculative kick, “is how it worked. How often did they have to do it? Annually? Monthly? And who got it in the neck? How did the island choose? Did better quality sacrifices get a better return, or was it — whatever it was — happy with the dregs?”
Chrissy had crouched down next to Leo, eyes on the markings, and when he spoke his tone was surprisingly ruminative. “Only you, Rafs, could meet a god, an actual god, and start negotiating. Not like going to the grocer’s, is it? Perhaps–” He poked tentatively at the stone, running a finger lightly over the marks.
Something in Leo’s gut twisted and shivered at the sight of Chrissy’s tanned skin against that gleaming white, those deep and ancient slashes: an impulse of the kind that he had always abstractly disdained, always thought himself too disciplined, too intelligent and cerebral to experience, rose in him. He moved without thought, or without any thought beyond a dim knowledge that something was happening within him, that some movement was being prepared and would not be stopped, and then he had reached out, and his fingers had closed over Chrissy’s hand, pulled it away from those marks.
Chrissy’s head jerked up at the unexpected contact, and suddenly Leo’s lungs were empty, his head full of static. The shock of those dark, startled eyes finding his own seemed to stop him working.
Chrissy’s hand was hot in his, palm just turning sticky. Leo could feel his pulse, the thick throb of blood in his veins.
“Perhaps they weren’t thinking about getting something from it at all,” Chrissy said, quietly, his eyes still so dark, still fixed on Leo’s. There was a glitter of something deep within them, something live and luminous, like a flash of faraway lightning. “Perhaps they wanted to give it something. Perhaps they just thought it was– you know. Rather wonderful.”
“And that kind of attitude,” said Ralph — Leo remembered that he existed, and dropped Chrissy’s hand as though stung — “is why you will never be more than altar fodder, Chips.”
Leo spent the rest of that day sketching the stone. He felt that he must, that it was the kind of thing he should want to do. He should want to measure it, photograph it, write it up, reduce its pale radiance to numbers and words, to so many lines on paper. He should.
Mostly he just wanted to leave it alone.
When he left the grove, wary of the failing light, it took everything in him not to turn and check it was still where it should be, still the same size. He was gripped by a half-formed fear that he’d turn and find it had shifted, or grown, bloomed up like a mushroom. That something immense and alive might have woken and pulled its gangling limbs from the earth, and was standing there, looking back at him.
He didn’t visit it again. He hardly needed to. It persisted, a dull itch in the back of his brain: He saw it sitting there behind his eyelids, glowing softly, each time he blinked. Every step seemed to be taken relative to its ancient, placid weight.
Naturally, he could not broach the subject with his companions. Ralph held absolutely no truck with irrational superstition, except as a kind of ghoulish toy, and Chrissy–
Well, there Leo was not quite sure. Chrissy’s exploratory zeal certainly hadn’t been checked by his discovery: He spent most of the next few days poking about the island. Sometimes Leo would spot him from afar — an intrepid flash of colour moving amongst the bleak hillocks, or poised on the shoreline, skipping stones. But he would often return with a rather thoughtful edge to his whistling, and when he was in camp, Leo marked certain hints of wariness, almost of timidity — darting looks and dropped sentences, starts and skittish blushes — that made him wonder whether Chrissy might not be feeling a little irrational too.
By the end of their first week on the island, Leo had almost become accustomed to it — to that strange mental tug from somewhere up on the hill; to the scratchy feeling of his nerves stretched tight. He had been scared almost his entire life. There came a point where even this must fade to static.
He was sitting by the fire, giving their nightly saucepan of canned stew a desultory poke, when Chrissy came and sat down beside him, with a slightly furtive air.
“Look,” he said, reaching into his pocket and holding out something round and dark. “Found this on the beach. Is it anything?”
It was a small grey rock, bearing the fossilized impression of some ancient creature — probably an early form of millipede — and Leo told him so. And then, led on by that fen-fire light in Chrissy’s eyes, he told him a little more, all that he could remember from his brushes with palaeontology — how sedimentary strata were formed, and kept, and broken up. How a cold and scaly little beast could fall asleep 400 million years ago, and then turn up in Chrissy’s hand.
“Is it… interesting?” Chrissy asked, his face alive with tentative eagerness. “To you, I mean. Anthropologically.”
Leo found himself profoundly, alarmingly unwilling to wipe that look away. “It rather predates the need for anthropology,” he said, carefully. “But yes, it’s interesting. It proves that it wasn’t always as barren around here as it is now, for starters.”
It had stayed cool and damp, the air almost chewy with the promise of rain, and yet Chrissy had caught the sun — or it had caught him, had stroked his cheeks, the bridge of his nose to a soft, radiant pink. When he smiled the way he was now, it could have been a little blush of pleasure.
Leo was relieved to have his attention caught by movement, sudden and new, on the firelit ground between them — until he looked down and saw what was moving.
“My God,” Chrissy said. “Not so barren after all! He’s come to see his ancestor.”
A millipede, some four inches long and wide as Leo’s thumb, was making its way across the dirt between them. It moved with the rolling, skittering gait peculiar to the many-legged, somehow frenetic and deliberate at once.
Leo felt a shiver, felt his breath stop in his lungs, felt the familiar shrinking narrowness of sudden fear. Zero at the Bone, he thought, inanely, and wondered vaguely where he ought to be sick.
“Hello,” Chrissy said, voice sweet with welcome, and put his hand down flat in the dirt. “You’re a rather magnificent fellow.”
The creature paused before the obstacle, rearing up and waving its fore-parts in the air as though sensing something, warily tasting the air. It looked so much like the shadow on Chrissy’s rock that Leo wanted to demand to see it again, to check that the ancient little ghost hadn’t shaken awake and slithered free.
“Come on, then,” Chrissy was saying, “hop on. You’re in a dangerous neighbourhood here, old boy. People tramping up and down like Piccadilly blooming Circus. Let’s get you out of the thoroughfare.”
“Hang on,” Leo said, voice thin, unable to drag his eyes from the thing as it began to hoist its rippling, segmented form onto Chrissy’s palm. “Hang on, Chrissy — some of those things bite. Don’t– Or just be– Be careful with it.”
It was too late to be anything but careful, as the millipede had already climbed aboard and was making its way over Chrissy’s palm.
“Oh, I don’t think he’ll bite me,” Chrissy said, cheerfully. “He looks very polite. And he can’t stop here, or–” He cast a glance towards the tent across the way, and stopped speaking, but brought his palm up in a motion that looked instinctual, defensive.
Leo saw the creature go rigid as the ground suddenly shifted under its feet, and went rigid himself, waiting for the catastrophe. But then it seemed to get its bearings and surged on, around, wriggling smoothly between thumb and forefinger, clinging to the back of Chrissy’s hand.
Chrissy looked back at it, face admiring, like a woman turning a new bracelet to watch it catch the light. It gleamed, dark against his peachy skin.
“Here,” Chrissy said, voice soft. “It’s all right, Leo.” And he held out his hand.
That thin fear seemed to grip at Leo’s brain, stopping all thought. He watched, with the paralysed impotence of nightmare, as his own hand reached out mechanically to meet it.
For a second, the contact — the fringed brush of its many miniscule legs — was as repulsive as it had been in anticipation. Leo’s spirit shrank from the hideous intimacy of it, as though from the cold edge of a knife or an unwanted, clinging embrace.
The creature was warm, as if it had been basking in the evening sun. It did not bite him. The movement of its compact, complex body spoke somehow of determination, of a blank animal curiosity. First, Leo could bear it. And then his fear melted, entirely, and he was so surprised and relieved and delighted to have it fall away from him that he laughed, a mindless huffed-out sound of disbelief.
Perhaps the creature could feel the vibration, and understood, for it scurried faster, over and over the front and back of Leo’s palm, rippling with pointless joy. Leo let it explore, sidle down the back of his hand, brush against the fine hair there: It carried out a playful, ticklish circuit of his wrist that made Chrissy laugh too.
“He likes you,” Chrissy said, sounding pleased.
“I’m glad.” Leo’s voice came out high, near hysterical with the burnt-off excess of his fear. “What do I do with him?”
“Give him here,” Chrissy said, and placed his hand against Leo’s to take the creature back, his fingers a brush of heat against Leo’s wrist. “I’ll put him in the grass.”
The millipede went almost preternaturally willingly and sat quiescent in Chrissy’s palm in a way that struck Leo as deeply unusual, though not unpleasant. He was no longer afraid, and Chrissy carried the thing with such supreme naturalness that he would not, in that moment, have been surprised to see it do anything at all — would have watched it run up Chrissy’s arm and perch on his shoulder, and been only charmed.
“You’ve a friend for life there, old man,” Chrissy said, on his return. ”I had the devil of a time persuading him to go. Think he liked the smell of your stew.”
There was a clacking of tent flaps: Ralph. He seemed to pause, and take them in, eyes narrowed. “Look at the pair of you,” he said. “Grinning away like a couple of bookends. Having a smashing time without me?” The behind my back was implied with such vigour that the trees rang with it.
“’Course not, Ralph,” Chrissy said, all amused indulgence. “We’ve been sitting here in utter silence, waiting for you to get back.”
A light entered Ralph’s eyes — a familiar, foreboding light. Leo put his head down, and developed a sudden, belated interest in the stew.
“It seems to me,” Ralph began, in a considering tone, “that you both spend all day sitting about. Meanwhile I have made something of a discovery. Would you like to see it?”
Chrissy sat up a little straighter, like a terrier that had just caught an interesting scent. “A bug?” he asked. “Crikey, Rafs, that’s ripping. Congrats.”
It suddenly occurred to Leo that perhaps Ralph might have liked to see the millipede, and that Chrissy had not called for him.
Ralph’s air of complacency dimmed a little at the question, and his mouth gave a tiny twist of discontent. “Not, to use your elegant term, a bug. They seem to go in for camouflage in these parts: I can hear the little bastards, but I haven’t seen a single one. But–“ He held up his finger impressively, vibrant with self-congratulation again in an instant. “Come and see.”
It was dim in Ralph’s tent, the lantern tossing shadows about almost playfully. He had set up his specimen trunk as a kind of workspace, a camp-chair in front of the raised black box. At first, Leo didn’t understand what he had laid out upon it. Or rather, he understood it instantly, but he simply could not believe it, the awful flashbulb image it made.
A small, splayed shape. Half furred, the strands of soft down clumped with liquid in places and sticking out in wet spikes, like eyelashes after a fit of weeping. Half slick and shiny and open — pink and grey and purple and stark, shocking white inside. Eyes dully translucent, like dirty glass.
Around the little body lay rags smudged red. A bowl of liquid gleamed smugly, surface taut, just beginning to jelly.
Chrissy had gone very quiet, and very pale. “Ralph,” he said, softly, eyes fixed on it — on the rabbit, anatomised. “How could you?”
Ralph was lighting his pipe. He shook out the match and tossed it on the ground with ostentatious nonchalance. “How could I? With astonishing ease. The thing was strolling about our campsite as bold as brass. Practically leapt into my hands. A single swift jerk, and –“ He stuck his pipe in his mouth and made a motion with his hands — sharp, and horribly legible.
Chrissy took it like an electric shock; he jerked too, convulsively turned his bone-white face up to his brother. “Ralph–“
“Oh, do dry up,” Ralph said, implacable. “I’ve told you before — in the name of scientific progress, there must be sacrifices. And, believe me, this one has yielded some pretty fascinating results. Knew there was something up with it as soon as I saw it. Take a look if you like.”
“I don’t like,” Chrissy said, hotly. Something had come into his face, something Leo had yet to see there — a pale flare of anger. “I don’t like anything about it! It’s a beastly thing to have done. I don’t understand it, and I think it’s beastly.”
“Oh, you think it’s beastly, do you?” Ralph was watching his brother narrowly, and this time Leo fancied that there was more to his gaze than scientific prurience. He was reminded forcibly of a spider watching a fly land lightly on a line of web. The same superior thrill; the same leashed, precise savagery. “You think I’m beastly, Chrissy? Think I do these things for fun?”
At this, Chrissy’s resolve seemed to waver. He stared at his brother for a second, and Leo watched the certainty drain from his face. Then Chrissy turned back to look at the mess on the table, as though subject to some irresistible compulsion.
“I wish you hadn’t done it,” he said, faintly. “But of course I don’t think– Perhaps — perhaps I just don’t understand. I don’t know much about–” He stopped.
Ralph clapped him on the shoulder. “Attaboy, Chips. No need for hysterics. Listen, if you did know a thing about anatomy, you’d see that I did the poor devil a kindness. It’s just extraordinary in there — half-finished, like it was put together by a child. The thing could hardly have lived long anyway. I don’t know how it was living at all.”
“But it was living,” Chrissy said, voice small. “We saw it. It seemed so–” He broke off again. Leo saw his throat work, and thought perhaps he might be about to throw up: He had a hand pressed tightly to his stomach, pale against the red wool of his jersey, as though he were the one slit open, trying desperately to keep his impolite guts from sliding out.
Ralph’s face went sharp, considering. His mouth curled up the corners, almost imperceptibly.
“Some things are like that,” he said, and his voice was uncharacteristically soft, almost soothing. “They seem perfectly normal on the outside. They seem to be living properly. But inside they’re all wrong. Sick. Unnatural.”
Chrissy seemed to freeze, all over — like he’d heard a twig snap under a hunter’s too-eager foot. He didn’t even seem to blink, to breathe. “Ralph–” he said, the word so weak and hollow that Leo almost didn’t hear it.
“Abominations,” Ralph said, and now he didn’t bother to contain his smile.
There was a moment where Chrissy stayed utterly still, face white, and eyes very full of lantern-light — as though he’d been slapped, and was waiting to see how much it stung. He looked odd against the dull canvas, the soft shadows of the tent, his features shockingly vivid with feeling. Like a figure in oils against a watercolour background.
The stew was burning. Leo could smell it, thick and acrid under the bright tang of blood and pipe smoke.
“Good grief,” Ralph said, looking at his brother with a kind of sick glee. “Not actually going to blub, are you? In front of Paxton? It’s just a rabbit, Chrissy.”
And for an instant Leo had Chrissy’s eyes on him: a quick, wretched little glance, as though he’d just remembered that Leo was there, and was deriving very little comfort indeed from the notion.
It hit Leo like a physical blow, left him winded, bruised all over. He opened his mouth to say something, but had very little idea of what might come out of it. He was so shocked and empty that he couldn’t imagine anything ever coming out of it again.
Then he’d missed his moment: Chrissy was laughing — an awful sound, pulpy and wet — and turning a game attempt at his usual lovely smile up at his brother.
“‘Course I’m not,” Chrissy said. “No fear! Just need some air, I think. I’ll just– Back in a tick.”
And he was away, shaking free from Ralph’s grasp and making a hunched dart through the tent-flaps, leaving nothing behind him but a gust of smoky night air.
“Well,” Ralph said, with great satisfaction. “There we are. Consider yourself honoured, old man: Not everybody gets to see Chrissy throw a fit like that.”
Suddenly Leo wasn’t empty at all, but bubbling over with fury — sick and shaky with it. His face felt hot; there was something sour in his stomach that might be disgust — old, accumulated disgust — with Ralph and his petty cruelty, with himself for standing by and letting Ralph do whatever he pleased, so long as it did not touch him. For never daring, never caring enough to do a thing to stop him. For spending so many years, so diligently keeping his head so far down that it might as well have been buried in the fucking dirt.
“I suppose you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself,” he heard himself say. The words sounded raw, unfinished, seeming to well up from somewhere deep within and spitting out of his mouth before they had even had a chance to form.
“I beg your pardon?” Ralph had his eyebrows raised, his mouth agape: he looked almost amused, almost marvelling. As though he’d just seen a dog sit up and bark the alphabet.
“You heard me,” Leo replied, ludicrously grand, as though he’d said anything of substance. But he had, hadn’t he? He had opposed Ralph, and he found, his mouth continuing to move as though by instinct, that he was continuing to do so. “Dissection is one thing, but how exactly did that little display further the cause of scientific progress? You knew he wouldn’t like it, and still you made him look– God, Peveril. Don’t you have anything better to do than rag on your little brother? When he’s done nothing, nothing, to deserve it, except be too good-natured to tell you to go to Hell. It’s–” He closed his mouth with a snap. He was breathing hard, he realised dimly. He had almost said pathetic. He had almost called Ralph pathetic.
Ralph was laughing, but that look of wonder had leached away: His eyes had turned sharp, assessing. He’d had enough of his dog’s tricks. Now he must decide what to do with it. “Well,” he said. “Now. What on earth has got into you? Moralising at me, all of a sudden. Over Chrissy–” He stopped, and looked at Leo, and sucked thoughtfully at his pipe.
And just like that, Leo was feeling something more than discomfort, something more than fear. Panic. Live, slippery panic, ripping through every part of him at once and turning it cold and useless. He tried to catch at it, to stamp it down — but it had been waiting over fifteen years to be let loose, and it was fast. Its icy fingers were long. They stirred his heartbeat up to a sickeningly quick thrum.
“You can do what you like,” he said, and his throat was so dry it hurt to push the words out. “I just wish you’d leave me out of it. And I– Frankly, I think it’s all a little schoolboy. A little infra dig. It’s not as though he gives it back.”
He waited, listening to the buzz of his own blood. The back of his neck was wet.
“Do you indeed?” Ralph said, slowly. Then he sighed. “Well, I can see that it might look like that from the outside. And perhaps you’re right — it is our duty to be kind to dumb animals. I was kind to this poor creature, and I shall be kinder to Chrissy, if only to please you, old boy.”
Leo breathed. “Do what you like,” he said again, and tottered towards the exit with legs made weak with relief. “I’m going to put that stew out of its misery.”
But he found that he could not go. Ralph had snaked a hand out, and caught hold of his wrist. “But, Paxton,” he said, “listen. I’m serious. If you knew the things I know you’d be careful not to be too kind. Don’t fall for his golden-boy, butter-wouldn’t-melt routine, and for God’s sake, don’t encourage him — or you’ll be setting yourself up for a nasty surprise. He’s a silly little blighter, yes, but he’s not without a certain” –he waved his pipe, searchingly– “primitive deviousness. Give him an inch and he’ll– Well, he’ll take as many as he can get.”
Leo tried to look as though he couldn’t imagine what Ralph might mean. As though it meant nothing to him at all. And perhaps he succeeded.
“Just trust me,” Ralph said, and let him go. “You do not want to get too cosy with Chrissy. You don’t know where he’s been.”
The fire had all but died, but it had taken the stew with it. Utterly cremated. Leo numbly hauled it from the heat, and stumbled off into the darkness to find somewhere to dispose of the remains.
His mind juddered like a stopped clock. It kept repeating the scene in the tent over and over: every noise, every colour, all impossibly lurid, intensified. The gold of the lantern-light, the black mass of the trunk. Chrissy’s cheeks — that sick, fish-belly white. As though it was his blood that had dripped out and drained away. The smell of his blood that was staining the air red. Black and white and gold and red all over. Like an illuminated manuscript, he thought, dizzily, and then wondered briefly whether this was hysteria.
The vision contracted. Now it was just one second: that single, bruising, endless second before Chrissy had left, when Leo could have said something — something comforting, something brave — when he had opened his mouth to do so, and he had failed. His little burst of chivalry had come too late, and been so short-lived. Do what you like.
The ground turned soft beneath his feet. He had reached the beach. He blinked away the vision and all that was left was himself, standing on the sand, holding a saucepan. Shards of moonlight lay scattered on the water. A wet, soupy wind came rolling up off the waves to bid him a chilly welcome.
If you knew the things I know. Leo suspected that he might know exactly what Ralph knew — that he might know exactly what Ralph would consider unnatural, abominable. But what good did the knowledge do him, now, as he was? What could he do with it? It was almost amusing, to think of Ralph warning him. As though there was any danger of Chrissy getting cosy with him. As though Leo had anything at all to offer Chrissy.
Impossible. Utterly impossible. Leo remembered finding that comforting, just a handful of days ago.
He was feeling it again, that shrinking sensation, that shudder of narrow, sense-stealing revulsion. Not at a crowd, not at a rock, not at a bloody millipede, but at himself. His life, and the way that he had lived it. Twenty-seven entire years spent in a perpetual flinch — a state of terror-stricken self-preservation. And it was only now, standing on a cold and dismal beach at the edge of civilisation, and hating, hating himself, that it occurred to him to ask what, exactly, he had been preserving himself for.
There had been people who had wanted to know him — at school, at university, and later — men who had wanted more than a collegial chat or a fuck in the dark. He had known that, and yet he had been so horribly, pathetically glad to use the need for general secrecy as an excuse for secrecy of another kind: more craven, more personal. Because never mind the condemnation, the consequences, the law; never mind the seemingly innumerable Ralphs of the world. There had always been something else, lying behind those deeply sensible, deeply practical concerns: the fear, the screaming, white-knuckle fear, that if everything went right, if he let somebody, someday, look at him — let them look through him, at his naked cringing core — they might not like what they saw. Might see how very little he had to offer.
And so, like a cockroach from the light, he had skittered away, had gratefully buried himself in books and history and dust and things that interested no other person on earth, precisely because they interested no other person on earth. He had nurtured his reticence like a virtue, a muscle — not saying, not doing, not wanting — until it had become the whole of him. Until there was nothing else left. And now, suddenly, there were things he did want, things he might, just possibly, if he had been a completely different kind of person, have been able to have: There were things he needed to say, to do, and he had no fucking idea how they were done.
He had made a mistake. He had shrunk away from the world, let it shrink away from him, feeling safer, cleverer with every inch of the retreat — and only now, when it was far too late, had he thought to look back and see the fire, the noise of life — real, messy, terrible, terrific life — and think wait, hang on, what if I want–
There was a sound, a small metallic clink, like a penny in a bucket, and then light flared up, shockingly close at hand.
Leo turned, mind falling blank with surprise. The light had already wavered out, leaving a warm orange pinprick behind it; the smell of cigarette smoke floated towards him.
“Hello,” Chrissy said, out of the darkness. “Not disturbing you, am I? I can buzz off.” His tone was not mournful, exactly, but it was markedly, noticeably not cheerful.
“Don’t,” Leo heard himself say. “Don’t go.” He dropped the saucepan heavily into the sand, and fumbled for his own cigarettes in an awkward frenzy. “Do you– Can I– A light. Can you give me a light?”
Chrissy ambled over, moving slowly through the shadows. Leo thought he might spark up his lighter again, that Leo would need to lean down to the flame, bow his head over Chrissy’s hand like a penitent kissing the ring. But Chrissy just held it out, and he took it and used it, and that was that.
Chrissy was looking out at the waves. “Sorry about that sickening display,” he said, and gave a sort of half-laugh, an airless imitation of his usual helpless peal. “Don’t ordinarily go to pieces like that, I swear. Must be tired, or something. All this bracing sea air — shock to the system, what?”
“Chrissy.” It felt as though somebody were standing on Leo’s chest, forcing the words out, and he almost startled at the sound of his own voice. He had never heard it like that before: aching, fierce. “He shouldn’t treat you like that.”
Chrissy did startle. He turned sharply, his face a mask of alarm, silvered by the moonlight. “Oh, I’m not so cut up as all that!” he said, with a kind of manic gaiety. It was almost convincing, and it occurred to Leo for the first time to wonder just how much of Chrissy’s relentless cheer was an effort of will. “Honest! I was just making a fuss — always been funny about the sight of blood. Ralph’s made of sterner stuff than I am, and a bit– Well, he hits a little hard, sometimes. But his bark’s much, much worse than his bite. He’d never do anything to hurt me — to actually hurt me. I know he wouldn’t. He could, and he never has.”
He paused, staring down at the ground again. The cheer had fallen away, exhausted.
“There’s almost nobody in the world,” he said, “who knows me like Rafs, and he still puts up–”
Then he stilled suddenly, that terrier-on-the-scent look coming upon him again. Leo was standing close enough — watching so intently — that even in the moonlight he saw his pupils dilate.
“Listen, old man,” Chrissy said, and turned, looking over his shoulder at the darkness behind them. “I’m going to say something terribly queer. You’re going to laugh at me. Do you feel something? Here, with us? Like we’re being watched, or like something’s waiting. Like something’s about to happen. I’m putting it horribly, but it’s like on the morning of your birthday, or when the bowler’s taking his run-up, but everywhere, all the time. I can’t shake it, not since I found that rock. At first, I thought it was just–” He stopped again — a jerky, elastic retraction — and Leo felt, more than saw, the brush of that bright gaze against his own face. “Well, what with one thing and another,” Chrissy said, “I can’t remember the last time I was so dashed nervous.”
For the first time in days, Leo had forgotten the stone at the top of the hill. He had forgotten his murky, shapeless fears; he had forgotten that dim feeling of imminence. He remembered it now, all at once, and had clotted horror so thick in his throat that he almost gagged on it.
They stood there looking up at the island, the pitch-black rise of its wooded hump against the sky.
All Leo could hear was the crashing of the waves, and Chrissy’s breath, quick with fright. He strained his senses for something more — something coming. A soft, inexorable tread in the dark.
“I could stand it all,” Chrissy said softly, and Leo had to concentrate hard to put meaning to his words, mind numb and narrowed — by the animal warmth of Chrissy’s body, so close at hand; by the ancient, abstract stirrings, out there in the woods. “I could stand it all if it weren’t so stifling hot. Doesn’t seem fair to be getting the shivers, and yet be so warm. Like sitting in a bally furnace.”
Warm? Perhaps it was a little warm during the day, but since sundown it had been decidedly fresh. That sea-wind was brisk enough to bite, and there was so much saltwater in it that the flannel of Leo’s trousers was beginning to cling. He remembered the feeling of Chrissy’s hand, days ago, febrile and sticky in his own.
In an impulse so shatteringly strong that it felt like madness, or a touch of divinity, he reached out, through the shadows, and then the fingers of his free hand were against Chrissy’s cheek.
Chrissy’s breath caught at the unexpected touch; Leo felt him still and tense. His skin was hotter than ever, radiant with heat — as though the sun hadn’t set at all, but had retreated inside him, buried itself in his chest to burn him up from within. Hectic. Fever-struck.
“Christ.” Chrissy’s voice had a far-away note of astonishment; the word was a hiss, almost a prayer. His cigarette fell into the sand between them, as though forgotten: He leaned into Leo’s touch, turning his cheek mindlessly into the chill of his palm. Leo could feel the dry brush of Chrissy’s lips as he spoke. “You’ve got nice cold hands. Like a doctor. How–” And now Leo could feel his shivers too, could feel a tremble as it ran right through him.
“You’re really very warm, Chrissy,” Leo heard himself say, the words coming out hoarse and strange in the thick dark air. “This might be something nasty. You feel sick.”
Chrissy made a little noise of concern: it vibrated against Leo’s hand. “Is that what it is?” he said, faintly. “I do feel a bit … odd. All-overish.” His voice was very careful. Leo remembered the story about the broken finger, and wondered just how odd Chrissy would have to be feeling to admit it. “Nothing I can really put my finger on. But– Am I really running hot?”
And it would have been such a small movement — for Leo to bring his hand down, to press the back of his fingers into the hollow between Chrissy’s collarbones, against the sweat-damp skin of his chest, and feel the quick thrum of his pulse through it. To hear Chrissy gasp again, to make him shiver.
Impossible, Leo thought, again. And then, haltingly, half-formed, more feeling than thought: Or–
There was a short, sweet trill. Birdsong, echoing through the trees. A liquid little phrase, loud and smooth and oddly familiar.
It shook Leo back to his tiny, wretched self: His hand swung down uselessly to his side. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not a doctor.” In his other hand, his cigarette had burnt down to his fingers. He dropped it and crushed out the glow. “But if I were, I’d start by telling you to get some rest. Why don’t you turn in, and we’ll see how you feel in the morning?”
Chrissy stared up at him for a moment, as though dazed. He looked sick, his cheeks dusky with a flush, his eyes catching the moonlight. Then he ducked his head, put the palms of his hands to his eyes, and laughed — a proper laugh this time.
“Oh, God,” he said. “A fever. Of course. Christ, I’m an ass. Delirious. Jumping at shadows. Thought I might be going mad.” He looked sharply up at Leo. “Oh, crikey, I hope it isn’t contagious. I’ll go, now. Get out of your hair.” He took a few steps off into the darkness then stopped, turned back and said, with the earnestness of utter exhaustion: “Pardon the drivel, old boy. Forget everything I said, will you? Must sound more imbecilic than ever.”
The tight, bashful curve of Chrissy’s mouth was worse than any reproach. Leo felt all that self-disgust creeping back over him, settling upon him like a snowfall. “But it isn’t imbecilic at all,” he managed. “A place like this — it’s bound to be overstimulating, particularly if you’re feeling run-down: I’ve been frightening myself witless all week, and I don’t even have your excuse. Just try not to let your imagination run away with you. That’s my prescription, for what it’s worth.”
It was a feeble effort. It barely began everything Leo wanted to say — everything he ought to say. And yet it was enough, it seemed, to make Chrissy’s smile relax a few degrees, turn soft and genuine, if not exactly happy.
“Leo,” he said, voice very quiet, “you really are awfully decent.” Then he turned and gave the woods one more long look, chin raised, hands in his pockets. When he spoke again, his voice was reflective, almost rueful. “I don’t know that I was frightened, not really. I suppose it’s a relief that nothing’s out there — that it’s all in my head. But it felt– Well, it was just a little bit exciting.”
Then a tired grin and a goodnight, and Chrissy was off, away, up the dirt track, towards the tents.
Standing there under the weight of twenty-seven wasted years, Leo watched him go — and tried, with everything he had, not to let his imagination run away with him.
That night, Leo woke into utter, utter darkness. It was so dark, and he had been thrust into it with such suddenness, that for a second he could only lie there blankly, thinking nothing at all and feeling every possible shock, as though his body — his roiling gut, sweating limbs, trembling heart — had been ripped from the realm of dream and left his mind behind.
He pulled himself together, and almost immediately wished that he had not.
He had not woken, but been woken. Ergo, rationality silkily decreed, he must have been woken by something. The jangle of his nerves dulled and gave way to a quiet, questioning dread — the shadow of his fear from earlier, still lying soft and heavy upon his brain. Something here, with us.
A bright burst of noise came out of the darkness — another bright burst, for he recognised it at once as the sound that must have penetrated his dreams and dragged him from sleep. A whimpering little moan: short, loud, piteous. Familiar.
Chrissy, it appeared, was also passing a troubled night.
Leo could go to him. Wake him up, calm him down. You’re awfully decent, Chrissy had said. It would be the decent thing to do. Chrissy might say so again.
But it felt impossible to cross the pitch-black tent, to crash about and raise hell and risk waking– Well, anything that might be around, out in the night, waiting to be woken.
A thick warm silence pressed all about Leo, against his face. Perhaps it was over anyway. Perhaps the possibility of action had passed him by. Perhaps he could let that fear lie him back down and pin him to the mattress, surrender to it with a shameful kind of relief.
Then Chrissy made another sound, a wrenching sort of sob, and the decision was made for Leo — was made in muscle and bone, without any input from the brain. His hand was scrabbling for the lantern on the floor next to him before he had even remembered that it was there.
The scratch of his match — tremendously loud — chased away the darkness. Light brushed tentatively at the dim shapes of boots and books and blankets, made them strange around the edges with shadows. It stroked against the canvas wall behind Chrissy’s mat. For an instant it looked so thin and fragile, like the paper of a child’s toy kite, that Leo almost wanted to put a hand to it and test it — almost could not bear to, in case it tore right through and let the black night air come slinking in.
He stopped looking at it.
Chrissy lay before him on the floor, face half-buried in his thin traveller’s pillow. The unconsidered sprawl of his limbs gave him a guileless, accidental aspect, as though he had tripped and fallen from the heavens. A clumsy angel in pink-striped pyjama trousers.
No crater, Leo thought, still close enough to sleep that it did not seem so very odd to crouch there looking down at Chrissy’s shifting shoulder blades and think nonsensical things. No crater, which seemed wrong, and yet– There was moss, rich and dark and cushiony, blooming out from under the edges of Chrissy’s sleeping mat — moss and grass and the cheerful faces of tiny flowers. That must surely have been there when they put up the canvas, but in his sleepy daze, it struck Leo as something more. As though the earth had caught Chrissy, cradled him. Held him in an immense cupped hand and strung him round with daisies.
It pleased Leo — seemed somehow fundamentally right, and proper. A jolly good show.
And yet still Chrissy was stirring, restless. He seemed to be struggling desperately against sleep, shifting in its grip, trying to throw it off: So far, he’d only managed to kick off his blankets, leaving them pooled and tangled at his hips.
Leo’s hand hovered hesitantly above his shoulder. There was a golden midsummer shine to Chrissy’s back where his undershirt had ridden up; between his shoulder blades, the fabric was dark and clinging with sweat.
The very air around him seemed heavy with heat, as though Chrissy was throwing it off in rolling waves.
Leo ought to put that hand down, firmly; he ought to shake Chrissy awake, say something soothing, offer him a drink. Then he ought to retreat to bed. He ought to do all of that, right now, instead of kneeling there and watching the candlelight do wonderful things with Chrissy’s profile, watching it soften his lovely, frowning face and turn his spill of dark-gold hair to a thousand fractured glories. Instead of staring at the quick, fragile movement of Chrissy’s eyes under his lids, the glint of his spit-slick teeth between his parted lips.
Before he could do anything, Chrissy shifted, pressed his forehead into the pillow as though suddenly shy. Then he let out a ruinously soft little cry, and followed it up with a string of hitching, gasped-out noises.
Leo’s thoughts turned hot and jumbled, and now he had to accept that it wasn’t fear that held him there, doing everything he ought not to do — or not only fear. He could still draw back, scramble back to his mat with his blood racing. He could put a guilty hand to himself, get off on that sound, and let Chrissy fight off his nightmare alone.
Frightened, and alone.
Chrissy’s undershirt was soft and worn and damp under Leo’s fingers. “Chrissy,” he said, stupidly, voice coming out hoarse and very loud in the half-light. “Chrissy, wake up. Wake up. You’re having–”
Chrissy stirred against the pillow, frown deepening, and seemed almost to push up into Leo’s touch — a tiny, monumental movement, like a seismic tremor. Then his lashes were fluttering, brushing against the pillowcase with an audible scratch, and he was rolling onto his back to look up at Leo with dazed, dark eyes.
For a moment he fell still — or a stillness seemed to fall upon him, like a blanket, pinning him, belly-up and breathless. For a single moment, the only movement in the whole tent was the waver of the candlelight. Then Chrissy’s eyes went wide and he was scrambling backwards, shying away from Leo’s hovering hand; his breath came again in deep, breakneck gasps that had his chest heaving. He stared up at Leo like– Well, like a rabbit on the butcher’s block.
Leo snatched his hand back, held it up — a gesture of contrition, apology, surrender — and spoke in as soothing a tone as he could manage.
“It’s all right,” he said, “all right. Everything’s fine. You were having a nightmare, but it’s over now; it’s all–”
Chrissy’s gaze dropped to somewhere in the small space between them — very, very quickly, just a single heartbeat — and when he looked back up to meet Leo’s eyes through the messy fall of his hair there was something so stricken and ashamed in his face that Leo could not help following the look. His own gaze fell in an irresistible swoop from Chrissy’s face, down, until he was looking between Chrissy’s parted thighs, and he stopped talking.
Chrissy was hard, very hard, the indistinct but unmistakable shape of his cock pressing heavily against the front of his pyjama trousers, straining against the button of his fly. Candlelight bounced slickly off a small dark patch near the seam.
Leo heard his own breath catch, and then a quiet unhappy noise, not his.
He couldn’t have guessed what expression might have crept onto his face when he dragged his eyes back up: shock, wonder, hunger. It hardly signified, because Chrissy was looking off to the side somewhere, his jaw set, tension all through his shoulders and a horrible stiff misery in his face.
Chrissy laughed, higher and tighter than usual. “Not a nightmare, this time,” he said, voice strangled. “Not quite. Sorry, old man.”
“It’s all right.” The words came out steadier than Leo would have thought possible.
Chrissy’s throat worked miserably. “Sorry,” he said, quieter. He was still looking away, but Leo could see how very bright his eyes were, brimming with brightness. “Dashed awkward for you. Haven’t had anything like this happen for years. It would happen now, when–” He blew out a sigh, and his lashes lowered: a minute gesture of resigned self-disgust. “Frightful imposition. What you must think of me — I’m so awfully sorry, I’ll–”
Leo’s heart did something complex behind his breastbone — a spasmodic catch; an aching, guilty clench. He never found out what Chrissy was about to offer to do, because the small, pained note of shame in Chrissy’s voice, the flush of humiliation in Chrissy’s cheeks — apparently that was what it took finally to make him stupid, to make him brave.
“Look here, Chrissy,” he said, softly, but very seriously. “I’m telling you, it’s all right.”
Their eyes met.
Leo saw Chrissy see something in his gaze; watched his eyes get wider, watched his eyebrows fly up. The dry, rational, cowardly part of Leo screamed for him to cower away, to extinguish the candle. But every instinct that he had spent most of his lifetime trying his best to ignore was crying out too, crying out louder than he could remember. He was caught between them, throwing the entirety of his small courage against that thick, familiar swell of terrified reserve.
There was a shift happening behind Chrissy’s bright eyes: That frozen misery was gone. And whatever happened next — whether Chrissy laughed it off, or asked for some privacy, or punched Leo in the face, or — or– Whatever happened, that look of painful humiliation had subsided and Leo felt a sudden lightness, a sense of triumph. Whatever happened next, whatever happened to him, Chrissy wasn’t frightened anymore.
Then resolve was rushing into Chrissy’s face along with something else: a fast bloom of feeling that looked less like amusement or relief or disgust, and more like a shocked, disbelieving joy. Leo only had a second to see it — to think, in a giddy firework flash, Oh, my God — before Chrissy was throwing himself upright, closing the gap, steadying himself against Leo’s chest. Pausing for just the barest breath. Leaning in. Pressing their lips together.
If Leo had allowed himself any concrete expectation at all, he might have thought that Chrissy Peveril would kiss how he ran: fast, joyful, utterly dauntless. He might, just possibly, have imagined it that way a couple of times before he could catch himself at it and deliberately smash the visions to atoms. But he would never quite have predicted this kiss. It was fresh and brave and eager — but still so soft, so tentative. It was a kiss that asked a question, that made a gentle, earnest appeal.
For a second, Leo forgot how to do anything; he forgot how to move, to breathe. And then something rose up within him again, something raw and irresistible, and he was acting entirely naturally for what might have been the very first time in his life. He was making his answer, as fully and honestly as he could.
His hands shot up to tangle in Chrissy’s hair; he drew that first skittish brush into something less soft, less faltering, deeper and hotter and determined. He had never wanted so desperately to kiss somebody, or been so desperate to kiss somebody well. He hadn’t kissed anybody in a while. But Chrissy’s mouth, the way it felt, the way it tasted — well, it made it easy. Chrissy tasted sweet, like honey or dessert wine. It was impossible, and fitting, and intoxicating. It drew Leo in, made him bold.
And Chrissy seemed to like it, thank God, thank God. He made a fevered noise against Leo’s lips, curled demanding hands into his shirt and pulled him closer, and Leo yielded to that demand so willingly that in the next instant they had unbalanced and were going over in a graceless, happy tumble, Chrissy’s back hitting the dirt floor hard.
There was a slick noise, startlingly loud, as Chrissy broke away to gasp out a quiet, heartfelt laugh, and to brush his lips a little vaguely against Leo’s jaw. And suddenly kissing him — which had a moment ago seemed like the pinnacle of existence — wasn’t quite enough. Leo stopped clutching at his soft hair and got a hand between them, laid it against Chrissy’s stomach, under his shirt, where it was lean and tense, sticky with sweat. The muscle there shifted and shivered beneath his palm; when Chrissy sucked in a shocked breath, his waistband nudged against Leo’s fingertips.
Leo paused there, feeling like a novitiate on the threshold of something grand and sacred.
Chrissy swore, and moved with more purpose, scattering a shower of quick, beseeching little kisses against Leo’s cheek, his jaw. “Yes,” he whispered, between each soft press of his lips, a crack of need in his voice. “Yes, yes, Leo. Please.”
Leo smiled dizzily, feeling rather grand himself. He slipped the button, and was inside.
Whatever Chrissy had been dreaming about had him more than halfway to the edge already: He was so hard, so hot and wet to Leo’s touch, silky with it. The first brush of fingers against his bare cock made him gasp — had him breaking off from his kisses to press his forehead clumsily into Leo’s cheekbone and just shiver against him for a second, helpless with sensation.
When Leo closed his hand around him properly, he whined, and his hips gave a violent kick upwards, trying to fuck into the still tentative circle of Leo’s fist.
“Oh, God,” Leo heard himself whisper. “That’s right, Chrissy. Just like that.”
Chrissy gave a shuddering moan at the words, at the sound of Leo’s voice, and Leo felt him jerk in his hand. God, that was– It sent a quivery pulse of heat through Leo; he was hard now too, getting to be fully hard and without a single touch — and yet it seemed, somehow, like a secondary concern, incidental, in a way it never had before. He needed other things too badly — to watch Chrissy, to go on touching him, to make him come apart completely — to spare much thought for getting a hand on himself.
He had never felt anything like it, this shameless, focused urge, not with anybody. It was so strong, so simple — so entirely different from his years of cringing, half-hearted self-sufficiency — that he almost couldn’t believe it was coming from within him. It felt too immense and vivid an impulse for his untrained frame to house.
He tightened his grip experimentally: Chrissy yelped, dropped his shoulders back against the ground, eyes screwed shut and mouth open. Then he was thrusting up in earnest, a lithe, sinuous motion of his hips, doing most of the work. Leo could just lean on his forearm and stare, half-hypnotised by the bright mobility of his features.
There was something overwhelming, otherworldly about the way sensation flickered so openly across Chrissy’s flushed and shining face: He was all gold and shadow and radiant want — the striving, exultant look of a saint in sacred pain. In the sepulchral lighting, Leo could almost have imagined himself shivering before a giltwood effigy of some forgotten young martyr. Blissful, anguished, blushed with divinity. The kind of thing that brought on raptures and raised up cults.
Moving like one in a dream, he brought his free hand in to touch aimlessly at Chrissy’s hair, to smooth it back from his face with clumsy fingers. The touch had Chrissy opening his eyes, and when they met Leo’s own, they were deep and shiny, and full of wild and helpless joy. Helpless, but not unthinking, not mindless and physical: He was looking at Leo — to Leo — with attention, welcome. Affection.
Leo could have sworn he felt his heart stutter. He felt pinned, dissected, dizzy with fright and exhilaration. Then Chrissy was reaching up, placing shaky fingers against his face and it felt like some kind of grace. A benediction. Be not afraid, Leo thought, abstractly, and even though it was fucking terrifying to be seen through like that, he wasn’t afraid. How could he be, when Chrissy looked so happy, so pleased to see him?
He lost all sense of self-consciousness before that look: It absorbed and annihilated him. The intolerable smallness of his crabbed, timid life seemed to fall away, and anything seemed possible. It no longer mattered that they were in a thin tent surrounded by old and patient dark: He no longer cared who or what might be close at hand. He wanted, plainly, directly, stupidly, to lay Chrissy bare in turn — to make him lose the very last of that shyness, to have him loud and heedless.
Surrendering entirely to instinct, letting it run through him and move him, he brought his free hand down between the two of them to palm blindly at Chrissy’s balls, tight and hot in his hand. Chrissy gasped and tossed his head; his legs kicked, heels sliding against the dirt floor, and his thrusts fell out of that flawless rhythm into something shallower — more erratic and needy, but just as lovely.
Feeling titanic, daring, Leo went further, released Chrissy’s balls and pressed a knuckle firmly behind them, against the thin, hot skin where he could feel the frantic thrum of Chrissy’s pulse.
“Come on,” he rasped out, rough and unabashed. “Take what you need, Chrissy. That’s perfect, you’re perfect–”
Chrissy was loud as his hips stuttered: He gave a sweet, sharp cry, like surprise, and Leo’s hand, his wrist were spattered, suddenly, with his release, everything even slicker than before. Leo drew him through it, awestruck, gave him a couple more gentle pulls just to wring the last scraps of pleasure from him, to feel him twitch and pulse in his hand: He couldn’t seem to let go, even as Chrissy went soft in his grip.
Chrissy didn’t seem to mind all that much. He only clung closer, flung his arms around Leo’s neck, pulled him down and kissed him: dry, shaky, whisper-soft kisses, fast and everywhere — his jaw, his cheeks, his nose, his forehead.
Leo found himself laughing, light and giddy. He let Chrissy’s spent cock go and reached up to hold him still and kiss him properly, to have that honey on his lips again — to get drunk on it. Each long, slow taste left Chrissy a little less restless, a little more drowsy and yielding, until he felt molten under Leo’s touch, and that was intoxicating too.
Leo could have spent several months basking in that sweetness, that soft warmth. By the time Chrissy finally tugged weakly at the back of his shirt, it rather felt as though he had, as though he had spent an endless summer tangled up in Chrissy, glorying in his mouth.
He drew back a little. Chrissy was flushed all over, his features blurred and gorgeous. His undershirt was ruined, striped with his own come; his hair was a sweaty wreck. And he was giving Leo one of his shy, affectionate smiles, disarmingly bright-eyed and boyish.
Leo felt something, in his chest — something small, new, expansive. A tiny, tender shift that might, just possibly, change everything. He wasn’t sure what to do with it, except to stroke a thumb against Chrissy’s cheek, very gently, and smile back down at him, very stupidly.
“Better?” he asked, his voice full of gravel.
Chrissy laughed quietly up at him. “My God,” he said. “Leo. Crikey. That was– You–”
At the raw sound of Chrissy’s voice, the shape of those swollen lips around his name, something suddenly clamoured for Leo’s attention: he realised — as one might realise that one had been hit by a motorcar — that he was still hard and hot as iron in a forge. All the time he had been kissing Chrissy into a stupor, he had been grinding lazily into the cradle of his hips, soaking his own trousers in the slick mess there. But suddenly that low-level hum of pleasant friction just wouldn’t do. He wanted more.
Perhaps it showed in his face, because Chrissy’s dimples deepened and he pushed at Leo’s shoulders.
“Up,” he whispered. “Shove over. I want– Your turn.”
Leo, light-headed with need, did as he was told; he let Chrissy push him around until they had swapped positions, and he was leaning back on his elbows, watching in a daze as Chrissy scrambled between his legs and reached towards the place where Leo was throbbing in his trousers.
“I was dreaming about you,” Chrissy was saying, in a soft rush. “About this. I dreamt that you let me–” He got Leo’s trousers open, and stopped talking, eyes gone huge and deep, devouring.
“Let you?” Leo was trying, really trying, to whisper, but there was an insistent, disbelieving laugh in it that he couldn’t seem to quiet. “I let you do what, Chrissy?”
Chrissy grinned up at him, suddenly — threw that bright look up with the swiftness, the stunning effect of a sucker punch.
“Do this,” he said, and leant forward, and took Leo into his mouth.
And this — this Chrissy did exactly how he ran — like a very enthusiastic amateur. Eager, natural, a little sloppy. And if he had been hot to touch, to kiss, then this, the wet heat of his mouth all around Leo, engulfing him — Leo had never felt anything like it. It had him almost immediately at the frayed edge of his self-control. When Chrissy hollowed his cheeks and hummed drowsily, he swore and bucked his hips up, hard — too hard, too fast. His hand flew instinctively to Chrissy’s hair and pulled him back, too terrified of hurting him to chase the splendid feeling of his silken throat.
Chrissy came up easily, coughing softly, and swiped the back of his wrist over his lips, his slick chin. Then he looked up, determination in his face: He caught Leo’s hand, which had let him go and was hovering uselessly, and put it back in his hair.
“Show me,” he said, mouth a rosy smudge and eyes very earnest. “I want to do it right. How you like it.”
Leo reeled. It felt unreal — shivery and electric, like a schoolboy’s first taste of blasphemy — that he was being allowed to touch Chrissy at all, and now–
“Anything,” he panted, with more feeling than sense. “Whatever you want. You’re terrific, Chrissy. Terrific.”
It won him another one of those blinding smiles, delighted and disbelieving, and Chrissy seemed to take it as a kind of permission to indulge his curiosity: to nose gently at Leo’s balls, to rub a cheek against his length. To tongue wetly at his slit — tiny, experimental licks that had Leo whispering curses, voice broken and strange to his own ears. And then to sink down, slower, more deliberate, and let Leo nudge against his throat again. To swallow around him, take him deeper.
It was dizzying, wonderful, all of it. Leo almost didn’t want it to end. It was only when he felt more than heard Chrissy moan — an ecstatic little noise, as though he liked it — that pleasure turned suddenly to desperation.
He forced his eyes open. Chrissy had pulled back a little for breath, still sucking fervently at all of Leo that he could fit in his mouth, lips so dark and wet. He had that otherworldly look again: eyes shut and face devout with a kind of solemn joy, as though he were kneeling to receive a sacrament. The notion alone was so perverse and wonderful that Leo’s fingers went tight in his hair, and he felt a liquid thrill in his abdomen, the one that meant he was on the very brink.
Then a flicker of movement caught the candlelight: Chrissy’s arm moving, his lean bicep working. Because he had his hand in his trousers. Because he was, incredibly, hard again, and getting off on the weight of Leo’s cock in his mouth.
Leo must have made some kind of noise, or possibly even spoken, because Chrissy’s lashes fluttered open, and he looked up, eyes teary and bright and knowing. And Leo’s climax hit him all over all at once, like an immense, scalding wave, and he was coming, just like that, shaking and gasping and spilling into Chrissy Peveril’s mouth.
Never mind losing self-consciousness: Leo felt as though he might have lost all consciousness for one sublime second, might have been reduced to sparking nerves and sensation. But returning to his tiny, wretched self wasn’t always so bad — not when it meant that he could reach for Chrissy and pull him down clumsily into his arms.
“Need a hand?” Leo managed. He felt utterly done-in, wanted to lie there and let the warm weight of Chrissy against his side, his chest press him slowly into sleep. But the thought of seeing Chrissy come off again — that, he could stay up for.
Chrissy only huffed out a laugh and shook his head against Leo’s shoulder. “Awfully good of you,” he said, voice a ruin. “But I’m all out for two.”
“Oh.” Did that mean– Had he already? Leo could hardly credit it. “Enjoyed yourself, then?”
Chrissy laughed again. “Enjoyed you. I’ve never been able to do it like that before. So deep, I mean. But I just– I wanted it. Felt right.”
Leo stared up at the canvas and tried to absorb that. He could dimly hear that birdsong again, somewhere in the trees outside: cheerful, lilting, sweet. It seemed to tug at something inside his chest, to catch at his heart so sharply it almost hurt.
One of them ought to snuff out that lantern before they burnt the place down, and Chrissy should almost certainly kick off those trousers. But for the first time in a long time, Leo was feeling too good to worry.
Felt right, he thought. It had felt right; it did feel right, to lay there with Chrissy against him. As though everything before had been a strange foggy dream, a whole week spent stumbling blindly towards this moment. A whole week, or– He remembered something, from that first day on the beach.
“Ralph told me,” he said, cautiously, “that you — well, you remembered me. From school.”
“Doubt that’s quite how he put it,” Chrissy said, words rounded and sleepy. He yawned, and snuggled closer. “It was all a lot more innocent than he probably made it sound. Honest. Thirteen-year-old Chrissy just thought Leo Paxton was it. Always so clever. Top of all the exam lists. Winning heaps of prizes, and standing on the stage looking so unimpressed, so fierce, as though they could stick their bally prizes. As though you didn’t have to work at it at all. As though you didn’t care a hang what anybody thought of you.”
It was all pretty preposterous, but that last bit startled Leo into laughter. “Oh, God,” he said. “That was a look of mortification. I cared so much I could hardly think. I was in an interminable agony of caring.”
Chrissy smiled; Leo felt it against his chest. “Well, to me you were a god. Magnificent. I used to imagine talking to you — just going up and talking to you — and come over all scared and shivery, like I was standing on the edge of a cliff. Probably would have done it too, if I’d had anything to say — but even then I knew I was a little fool. Made me wish I wasn’t.”
Leo had that feeling again, in his chest, more than a tug — as though somebody had their hand around his heart, and was squeezing hard.
“Chrissy,” he said. “You’re not a fool. Don’t talk rot. You mustn’t.” He had to consciously soften his grip on Chrissy’s shoulder. It had gone so tight, without his permission, that he was worried it might hurt.
Chrissy didn’t seem to mind; he shifted in Leo’s grip — a wriggle of sleepy contentment. “Well, all right, I’m not a fool. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter, anyway. I was certainly sound enough on one score, even then.” He sighed. “Don’t know that I’m putting it right. I barely understood anything back then. I would just see you sitting about with Ralph, and I could tell that you were thinking, always thinking so much, and never saying it — and I wanted to know what it was.”
Leo did the only thing he could think of in response to that, and dropped a kiss to Chrissy’s hair, breathing in the smell of sweat and sea-salt and that inexplicable sweetness. “Mostly,” he said, “I was thinking Dear God, I hope nobody’s looking at me.”
Chrissy shifted again, tilted his head back to gaze up at Leo. The sleepy droop of his lashes gave him an adorably earnest look, but he was smiling. “I was looking at you,” he said. “Don’t mind, do you?”
It was impossible to mind. It was impossible to do anything but pull him in and kiss him, and kiss him, and listen to the birds, and kiss him.
When he was next woken, Leo knew exactly what had done it: Chrissy, up with the sun and squirming out of his grasp to pull back the tent-flap and look at the morning.
Leo sat up, groggily, and looked at him in the soft dawn light — at the lean golden lines of his limbs as they were shoved into a pair of shorts and a shirt.
Chrissy saw him watching. “Sorry,” he whispered, paused in a crouch. “Didn’t mean to wake you. Lovely weather for a sweat. Come too?”
“Absolutely not,” Leo said, and felt a little golden himself, inside, when Chrissy gave him one of those knockout grins. “I’ve a very important chapter on the talismanic significance of the anhaga in ancient skaldic culture to stare at.”
Chrissy laughed, a ripe, summery sound that Leo could taste against his teeth. It filled him up, and made him hungry, all at once.
“I don’t have a bally clue what any of those words mean,” Chrissy said, cheerfully. “But I like the way you say them.”
Then he appeared to hear what he had said, and flicked a little glance over at Leo — and Leo knew, now, that the abashed little smile on his face masked a flicker of unease. He thought of his own squalid history, all the people he had pushed out of the door, pushed out of his life, as soon as the sun came up. Earlier, usually.
“I mean–“ Chrissy was saying, eyes on the ground between them.
It was so easy, so good to reach over and put a hand on Chrissy’s shoulder: feel the heat of his skin through his shirt; feel him tense under the touch, not with fear but with a charged anticipation. To have Chrissy look up at him, eyes wide and happy, a real smile blooming on his face, a smile that Leo had put there — God, it was heaven.
“Shall I say them again for you?” Leo asked, eyes on that smile, only inches of warm air away from his own lips.
Chrissy darted a look out through the open flap at his brother’s silent tent across the way. Then he reached over and curled his fingers into the collar of Leo’s shirt, pulled him through that warm air and kissed him: brief, hot, and stirring.
It was less like a kiss than a lightning strike, a concentrated burst of vitality. It woke Leo up all over.
They parted. Chrissy grinned at him some more, pleased with himself — pleased, it seemed, with everything — and then he was off, out the tent-flap and into the genial embrace of the dawn.
Leo sat there for approximately fifteen seconds before resigning himself entirely to his foolishness and scrambling up to watch him go.
He ought, probably, to have been relieved to find that Ralph wasn’t in his tent after all, but heading back towards camp from the direction of the latrine. But the information struck him very softly, very distantly. He almost wasn’t interested at all.
Ralph was faintly ludicrous in the morning light, his pale hair sticking up and his pyjamas tucked into his boots, and he seemed unaccountably bewildered by Chrissy’s cheerful fly-by greeting. He stood there staring after him for a minute before ambling the rest of the way, face sour and thoughtful.
He spotted Leo, and gave him a nod. “There’s something seriously off about that boy,” he said, by way of a greeting, and turned back to look at his brother’s rapidly receding back. “And I don’t mean the usual defects. Do you know, he’s set out without any shoes.”
Chrissy was little more than a blur of white and gold by now. But if Leo squinted–
Ralph was right. Bronzed calves, pale ankles and then — no shoes. Bare, untanned feet against the dirt track, the wet grass, the soft brown earth. But Chrissy didn’t seem much hampered by his lack of footwear: His gait was as springy and exuberant as ever, his steps as swift and trusting.
There was a shrill of birdsong; Ralph went still, alert.
“There’s something off about this whole damned place,” he hissed. “Listen!”
It was the same birdcall from last night: that short trill, delightful and familiar and not in the least alarming. Leo looked at him in blank confusion.
“That bird,” said Ralph, voice grim, “is singing jazz. Cole Porter.”
Leo listened. It was.
Extraordinary. But then why shouldn’t the birds be extraordinary today? Everything else was.
The next few days were, quite honestly, the happiest of Leo Paxton’s life. He knew they must be because every time he caught himself thinking it — this is the happiest day of my life — he had to make a conscious effort to keep himself from adding — so far. He was not constitutionally inclined towards hope, but it seemed to spring up in him, stronger and more persuasive with every minute that he spent with Chrissy — walking, talking, playing beach cricket, swimming in the sun-dappled hollow in the lee of the hill. Pacing about the sand searching for suitable offerings to pile at Chrissy’s feet, and listening to him whoop as he sent them bouncing across the waves. Pressing him into dew-damp clover and doing brand-new things, then lying next to him and saying brand-new words. Answering his questions, every one: about Leo’s work, his thesis, and then, haltingly, shiveringly, about himself.
Excavating his little life and laying it bare for Chrissy’s inspection. Letting him look, and liking it.
It couldn’t last, of course: Leo had a job, a flat, an empty grey existence waiting for him on the other side of the month. But it was so easy to push that knowledge away, and choose instead to bask in Chrissy’s perpetual warmth — to glory unthinkingly in the late spring that seemed suddenly to have fallen upon Liverston, turning every part of it fresh and strange.
Only one thing on the entire island seemed untouched by this season of tentative jubilance — seemed, in fact, to regard it all with a growing revulsion.
Even by his own inimitable standards, Ralph was tetchy and acidic, and was growing more so with every hour that saw the island grow livelier and livelier and yet still refuse to yield up its tiniest chitinous citizens for his delectation. Mealtimes were Hell. Like breaking bread with a powder-keg. It was only a matter of time before it blew. And yet Leo couldn’t seem to keep his eyes on the steadily dwindling fuse. There were too many other things to look at, to think about.
Like Chrissy, over on the other side of the hill, basking on the shining green bank of the hollow. With frankly superhuman strength, Leo had headed in for lunch first and left him lying there: wet, naked and beautiful. Catching the sun in a thousand glittering places. Golden all over and muddied at the knee, smile utterly shameless.
Enough of Leo’s mind was still back there with him that when he first saw Ralph’s spindly form hunched over in front of his tent, his narrow hands at work, there was a split-second where Leo thought he was spinning web.
Ralph had pulled his packing trunk out to act as a makeshift table, and his precious flint knife was darting rhythmically through the air as he cut length after length of whip-thin cord, the stuff they’d brought by the spool to rig their tents.
Leo had almost forgotten all his talk of fever. It had been easy to do so, when Chrissy was so obviously, delightfully hale and hearty. But he remembered it now, on seeing Ralph sitting there in the sunlight. He looked ill, face sharp and skin waxy, eyes over-bright and busy.
He’d finished cutting. Now he picked up the first length of cord and began to fiddle about with the ends, tying it off in a slipknot. He regarded it with satisfaction for a moment, then set it down and moved on to the next. It lay there, looking back at Leo with a kind of nasty complacency: a tiny, limber noose.
“Afternoon,” Leo said, carefully. “Those don’t look like specimen jars.”
“That, my dear Watson,” Ralph replied, with sardonic cheer, “is because they are not specimen jars. Today I hunt larger game. Going to snare one of those blasted birds and take a look inside. Even if there’s nothing interesting in there, at least it’ll shut the bloody thing up.” He grinned, and it was so similar to his brother’s smile, and yet so different — wrong, like a sick parody. “Ought to do the same to anybody who goes ‘round whistling that kind of tripe, in the name of good taste. If I could get away with it, I would.”
And Leo realised — really realised — something.
The knowledge must have been inside him for years, he thought, dazedly, sitting there and gaining mass like some malignant growth, too dreadful to acknowledge.
Ralph wasn’t funny. He wasn’t flippant; he didn’t have a morbid sense of humour. He said outrageous things with the cadence of a joke, and he got away with all of them, because any effort to take them seriously would usher an element of roaring chaos into the conversation. And he had carefully surrounded himself with people who were either too good-natured or too cowardly to hazard that.
But he wasn’t joking. Not ever. He was utterly, utterly serious.
Leo suddenly felt as though he was trapped in a room with a rabid dog, or something worse — something with a keen, cruel intelligence, that was simply choosing to leave him be, for now, because it had no pressing cause to hurt him. Yet.
Well, fine. That was fine. So long as Leo did what he had been doing for years, and carefully continued not to give Ralph cause. So long as he kept his head down, and walked away.
It would be the height of foolishness to do anything else.
Leo stood there, palms wet, and stared down at that complacent little noose.
“You can’t,” he said.
Ralph paused, his hand on a snare — poised and intent, as though he were already out there on the hunt, listening to the rustling of his prey.
“I can’t?” he asked, voice slow and silky.
There were a thousand reasons why Ralph shouldn’t do it. It was wrong, cruel, unethical; any data he collected would be next to useless in these conditions — and he was an entomologist, for God’s sake! Even if he scraped together anything to publish, it would be dismissed as rank amateurism. A joke.
Two weeks ago, Leo would have thought all of these things, and said nothing. Right now, he found that he was thinking all of them, and something else besides. He found that he was opening his mouth, and he was saying, “You can’t. I won’t let you. Chrissy wouldn’t like it.”
At that, Ralph did look up, in a shocked, ungraceful jerk. He seemed to go white all over, his eyes wide and wild, bones standing out against the skin of his fist. For a second, he looked unreal, his features so lurid with cold fury that Leo took an involuntary step back.
“Chrissy wouldn’t–” Ralph hissed. “Chrissy.” He threw the snare down on the trunk: It made a noise like the crack of a whip. “I knew it. You–”
And then, before Leo had time to do anything, to think anything, even to take breath, gravity had shifted and he was staring at the blank blue sky. His back screamed, and his lungs were empty, and every atom of sense had been shaken clean out of him, because Ralph had given a roar — appalling, surreal in its intensity — and vaulted the trunk, had flung his entire body-weight against Leo and tumbled them both to the ground.
Then all was shifting light, and bursts of pain, and his own frenzied flailing as they grappled with each other — the first fight, the first real fight of Leo’s life. He had spent most of his existence tensed for emergency, and now it was finally here, and his mind seemed at first to stutter and trip, refusing to believe it. Then all at once his body woke up and movement poured through him. His legs kicked; his hands grabbed and clutched; he managed to get on top, to fist a hand in Ralph’s pale hair and slam the back of his head into the earth, make his teeth rattle. He felt a burst of savage satisfaction.
Ralph was still fucking talking, because naturally he was. “Snake in the bloody grass,” he was shouting, breathless. “You vile traitor bastard.” His face spasmed, and he spat with astonishing force and accuracy up into Leo’s face. “Fucking Judas.”
The sudden wetness against his cheek startled Leo so badly that he lost his ascendency: He took a knee to the gut and was rolled, and then there were hands around his throat. He scrabbled at them, uselessly.
It took an alarmingly short time — four, five breaths — for his movements to grow clumsy. Ralph’s shockingly bright face — the flash of his bared teeth, the glint of madness in his eye — began to be eaten away by impossible, shimmering spots of darkness. And the darkness burned, in Leo’s eyes, in his lungs. Something cold and hard was pressed against his throat. Signet ring, he thought, a final, hysterical spurt of sense.
There was a dull throbbing pressure in his head, a roar like flames. He was in the dark and on fire, and yet his limbs felt so cold.
“Always suspected something wrong with you,” Ralph was panting, the words sounding very foggy and far away. “Since school. But that — with Chrissy–” A high laugh. ”Bloody pathetic.”
And then Leo thought he heard something else, something so welcome it must be imagination, his mind trying feebly to bring him some last comfort. A familiar, a beloved voice, twisted around an indistinct noise of consternation.
Suddenly Leo could breathe again. Suddenly that was all he could do — lie there and cough, eyes streaming, and let air into his lungs, and passively let the world receive him again.
Two dim figures were scuffling next to him: scrambling, separating, pausing a few feet apart from each other, like fighters in the ring at the end of a round, or the beginning of the next. Leo managed to roll over, and look up.
Chrissy. Not in imagination, but really there. Barefoot and beautiful, and smudged all over with dirt. He was facing his brother, hands outstretched in a wary, placating manner. His hair was damp and he’d hardly bothered to dress — still in his boxer shorts, his shirt undone. It was the first time in days that this informality had seemed at all remarkable: Next to Ralph he looked naked — soft, horribly vulnerable — and the worst part was that Chrissy himself seemed so completely unaware of it. His face was alive with confusion and concern and a kind of affronted, righteous anger — and absolutely no fear at all.
Leo blinked. There was something dark, something smug and glinting in Ralph’s hand. Devotion to a knife fight, Leo thought, and felt his whole battered body go stiff with fear, with the frozen impotence of nightmare. Oh, God.
“Calm down, Ralph,” Chrissy was saying — hotly, urgently, but nowhere near urgently enough. “What’s the row? Why–“
His eyes kept darting down: He kept shooting wide-eyed glances of concern over to where Leo lay hacking and twitching in the dirt, when he should be looking at his brother, at the knife.
Ralph was panting, half-crouched, like an animal about to spring. “You,” he was hissing, and each word came as a rough breath. “You viper. I take you to a deserted bloody island and even then– “ He gave a harsh cough of laughter. “You filthy little whore,” he said, and made a wild swipe for his brother, knife whistling clumsily through the air between them.
That pinch of confusion between Chrissy’s eyebrows fell away in an instant, leaving his face blank and horrified. For a second, he looked very young, and very shocked — as though he had never truly believed that horror existed till now.
“Ralph,” he said, or almost said: Leo saw his lips shape the word, but no actual sound emerged.
Ralph swung again, and this time, a pained determination entered Chrissy’s face. He snatched at the arm with the knife — got both hands around it — turned his shoulder to his brother and grappled with him, their feet kicking up dust.
“Can’t help yourself, can you?” Ralph was shouting, and then Chrissy must have got him in the stomach, because he grunted and stumbled back. “Or do you do it simply to get at me? After everything I’ve done for–”
And then he very abruptly stopped talking, and made an inarticulate sound in his throat — a hoarse kind of gurgle — and pressed a hand to his mouth.
“This may amaze you, Rafs,” Chrissy said, breath short, hands on his hips. “But I wasn’t thinking about you at all. And I don’t really give a damn what you think about it, either.”
He sounded cross, proud, defiant. And there was something else there in his voice: a thread of tired, dignified disdain. He sounded like a man who had come, finally, for the first time in his life, to the end of his tether.
He did not sound like a man who had a four-inch shard of flint buried hilt-deep in his shoulder, just below the joint, the compact little handle stark against the linen of his shirt. Which was remarkable, considering the circumstances.
Leo had managed to get a hand to the top of the trunk next to him, in the vague hope of hauling himself to his knees. Now it slipped off, fingers slick and nerveless. The ground seemed to heave beneath him.
Chrissy frowned, and looked down, and saw what they were both staring at. He made a noise of his own — a soft, startled, quick-taken breath — and his eyes went wide. Quickly, as if gripped by a reflexive terror, he reached for the handle and pulled the thing out. It came smoothly, leaving a ragged tear in the shoulder of his shirt.
He stared down at it in his hand, at its length, its dark breadth.
Leo waited for the shiny tide of red to rush across Chrissy’s shirt — waited for the sapid, slaughterhouse smell. It didn’t come.
“You’re–” Ralph said, voice thin. “You–” He raised a shaking arm, an accusatory finger. “There’s something wrong with you. You’ve gone wrong. You’re not my brother.”
Chrissy looked up from the knife with an expression so full of tense, inchoate fright that, despite the pain, the shock — despite everything — Leo just ached to hold him. Then he turned and, just for one second, he was staring at Leo. Leo froze, heart caught in a half-beat: Chrissy’s eyes were so dark and deep and open that looking at them, meeting his gaze, was like looking at the liquid mess of a mortal wound. It made his whole being shiver, made his stomach flip over in a cold thrill.
And then the knife was bouncing in the dust, and the air reverberated with the sound of bare feet against earth. Chrissy had wheeled around and was off at a dash, open shirt flying out behind him like the wings of a painted angel.
That last glance of his stricken face seemed to float in front of Leo for a second — bright and wavering and out of reach, like light on the water.
“Right,” Ralph said, emptily. Then, with more determination, “Right.”
He reached down and snatched up the knife, then gave a single glance back.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Paxton,” he said. “Stay down.”
One single kick, hard, to the ribs, and Leo was sprawling again, tasting grit, and salt, and iron.
Chrissy had better pace and stamina than Ralph, far better, but Ralph had longer legs and the heart of a hunter.
Leo, who felt unreal, fuzzy with pain in every part of him, was slower than both. But he had a dim, dreadful idea of where Chrissy might be headed.
It was dark, in amongst the trees, and the pine-needles slipped about underfoot. Leo put his whole spirit into his run: one foot in front of the other, and again, and again — stumble and stagger and start again, and don’t fucking stop. Each time he caught himself against a straight orange trunk, his hands came away wet with sap.
His lungs were screaming as though split, and he could hear a confusion of noise, somewhere up ahead — shouting, indistinct sounds, a pleading tone. A sobbing, panic-shattered scream, once and then again. And then Leo stopped hearing anything over the thrashing of his own heart.
The trees were thinning, the ground less steep, the light was stronger — and then there was movement before him, a pale flash, and Ralph had him by the arms, was filling his vision. There was a damp sheen of terror on his face and he looked — he looked odd, flashy red bulges dotted all over his skin, wherever it was bare: his forearms, his cheeks, his forehead. There was a swelling at his throat like a goitre, made up of what looked like a dozen, a hundred angry stings.
“Don’t!” he shrilled, sending a cold spray of spit against Leo’s face. The word came out a little mushy around the edges, as though his cheeks were too swollen to shape the sounds. “Don’t, Paxton: You do not want to go up there, I promise. The boat, now, come on.”
Leo shook him off, shoved past him, eyes on the light ahead. Ralph’s voice — jagged around a high, hysterical laugh — followed him as he went: “Fine! Do what you like! Your bloody funeral!”
The darkness finally broke, like tension on water, and Leo was stumbling out into the clearing, blinking in the light. Blinking at what he saw there.
Everything came at him through the clinging mist in queer, queasy flashes, like a series of ghastly paintings, stuffed with too much detail. The signs of a struggle in the black earth. A weird mobile shine to the air: a thinning cloud of a thousand utterly impossible insects. A snowy tangle in the dirt, like a downed and broken swan. Chrissy’s shirt.
Chrissy himself, sprawled on that patient bone-white mass in the centre of the grove, one golden leg hanging clumsily down, head back. Accidental, guileless, as though he’d fallen from the sky, or been flung down.
There was an odd, claggy sound in the air, like the sucking noise of a foot pulled from mud, again and again.
Chrissy still wasn’t bleeding. Ralph had got him in the chest, cut him open, a straight, deliberate incision from the middle of his sternum down to his navel; he had undone Chrissy’s lovely golden skin, and exposed everything inside to the bracing sea air. Leo could see the glint of slick flesh and severed muscle, the heavy wet shine of pink and red and purple viscera. But Chrissy wasn’t bleeding. And he was still breathing. His unseamed chest was heaving up and down, shaking with shocky gasps of air, and with each fevered motion the gash would pull open: More of his insides would peek through, then slip out of sight again — a surreal little peep-show.
Leo felt as though his consciousness had recoiled, tunnelled deep into his body, and he was seeing everything from an immense, indefinable distance. He might have said something; he thought he felt, vaguely, his lips fumble around words, felt breath against the backs of his teeth. He might have said, “Chrissy.”
Chrissy’s eyes were turned sightlessly to the sky, pupils vastly dilated; his mouth was hanging open. That hideous noise was coming from him, from his throat. He was making a rough liquid sound with every rapid breath, like his windpipe was in revolt. He sounded — God, he sounded like he was dying, and he must be, with his chest open like that, his limbs twitching morbidly. Leo’s eyes darted back to the– the wound, almost against his will: he could see a broad strip of white, leading down from the top, the smooth flat plane that must have stopped Ralph’s knife. Chrissy’s breastbone.
That stripped-clean white seemed to burn in Leo’s brain. It filled his vision — sick, magnetic — and strangled all other thought.
He felt a hot pressure in his throat.
The noise changed, thickened. “Le—” Chrissy said, his lips actually forming a shape, instead of hanging open in a shocked pink O. “L—Le—”
And Leo could move again. He had his fear-slick hands against Chrissy’s cheeks, cradling his face, trying stupidly to hold onto his spirit, to prolong this impossible consciousness.
“Chrissy,” he said, his voice coming out awful and raw, words blurry with panic. “Chrissy, Chrissy, Chrissy. Don’t– It’s all right. Breathe. It’s — it’s all right. What can I–” Don’t go. I’ll do anything.
He smoothed his thumbs against Chrissy’s cheeks, under his gorgeous dark eyes. Chrissy’s face felt warm and soft and slack under his touch, and was utterly expressionless, as though blank with awe. His eyes were blank, too — not pained, not confused, just blank and wet and full of reflected sky.
Leo could feel something wet on his own cheeks, could distantly feel a sting behind his own eyes.
Chrissy’s throat worked convulsively once, twice; his eyelids trembled, and his lashes fluttered. And then.
His mouth curved, very slowly, lips trembling a little, into one of those gut-punch grins — bright, open-mouthed. “Leo,” he said, little more than a breath. “Leo. Yes. You’re here. Keep — don’t go. Feels–” And his hot hand was against one of Leo’s; he was curling his slim fingers clumsily around Leo’s own — when he shouldn’t be able to move, shouldn’t be able to think for pain. “Feels t’riffic.”
Leo just about heard himself make some sort of sound — a ragged whuff of air, an instinctual noise of frozen confusion — before his ears were filled with a thin whistle of formless terror.
Chrissy kept staring at the sky, panting through that beautiful, impossible grin. His fingers flexed and tightened, and then he was drawing their joined hands down, down, sliding down his throat to rest on his collarbone, his chest. Just above —
Leo’s palm brushed over the very top of the incision, the place where skin and muscle parted: He felt the wet edges of the wound shift and stretch open a little more under the weight of his hand. Chrissy moaned and shifted against the rock, under Leo’s touch, a little tremor of ecstasy.
The cut skin held a vernal warmth, and there was wet heat thrumming beneath, in the cavity of Chrissy’s chest, pouring off his soft and busy organs.
Something smelled strange, smelled sweet and sharp, like decay. Or ether. Change.
“Chrissy–“ Leo said, a weak, wretched whisper. There was something, some kind of understanding, or revelation, pressing at the narrow confines of his consciousness — like a hand pressing at a tent wall, trying to find a way in. Something was — something was happening, something tremendous. “What–“
“Please,” Chrissy said, more rushed, beginning to sound desperate. His fingers twitched against Leo’s again, but he seemed to have lost the power to compel their hands into movement, too overwhelmed by sensation. “I — I don’t know — m’not– But please. Touch me. Want you to.”
Leo watched as his shaking fingers gently, very gently, disentangled themselves from Chrissy’s own. They moved down, and ghosted over the dark, wet seam of Chrissy’s chest, callused pads catching at the near edge.
Chrissy let out a shuddering gasp, and jerked up a little, propped on a quaking arm. His other hand shot to Leo’s free wrist, clinging on to it like a spar in a storm, as though to keep from drowning in feeling.
“Like that?” Leo heard his own rough voice grit out, and did it again.
“Yes!” Chrissy said, a startled cry of pleasure, his breath coming quick again, but not the abortive, choked-out breaths of earlier, just ragged and needy. “Yes. Or — or you could–” He looked up into Leo’s face and his voice dropped to a whisper, lips barely moving. “Inside, Leo. You could touch me inside.”
His eyes were glossy, fever-bright. But he wasn’t flushed, despite the heat pouring off him in waves, his skin still very golden and peachy. Could he still flush? He wasn’t bleeding. But there was still the thick throb of a pulse under his skin; Leo could see it in his throat.
He could also see the plump shape of Chrissy’s cock, pressing up insistently against the front of his boxer shorts. And when Leo’s fingers slipped the slightest fraction deeper, he could see that shape twitch.
“Please,” Chrissy said, and squirmed against the rock. “Oh.” His fingers clenched around Leo’s wrist; the edges of his wound seemed to tighten and flex under Leo’s fingertips, seemed to lap feebly, beseechingly at them — a shy, eager appeal.
He smelled so sweet; he felt so very hot, inside.
And the walls of Leo’s dim little world trembled, and shattered, and the bare, inconceivable truth of the situation crashed in upon him, and his spirit quailed and thrashed and thrilled before it in sublime, expansive terror. Something seriously off about that boy, he thought, abstractly. And then: Be not afraid.
He wasn’t afraid, suddenly, just dazed and shaking and astounded and — and helplessly, bewilderingly aroused. Stiff and aching in his trousers.
He curled his fingers into the shivering edges of the gash, half-sick with shapeless want, half-frozen with fear. Chrissy only moaned, a thin little noise of yearning.
Slowly, so slowly, Leo pulled the sides of the wound a fraction wider.
The flesh and muscle gave, soft but elastic under his touch, and the slit gaped open a little. Chrissy’s breathing turned frantic: short, sharp drags of air through his nose, like an animal in a fit of terror. Still there was no blood, though Leo’s fingers were wet with a shining fluid — golden, thick and slightly sticky.
The light of the sun glinted softly off a peek of Chrissy’s breastbone; his sturdy ribs; the dim slick movement of organs, behind them. A shadowy tremble that could be his lungs. Leo’s eyes skimmed over it all, meek and wondering, helpless; he had no idea how it should look in there, whether any of it was subtly different. He only knew bones. When it came to heaving soft tissue, he was an amateur, feeling his way.
He slid his hands gently down, to the bottom of the slit and — oh. Yes, even an amateur could spot that. The supple rope of Chrissy’s intestines, Jesus, moving fast within him. Squirming, actually squirming. Coils of gut twisting over each other with a kind of eager, aimless vigour.
The noise was indescribable.
Leo thought, dizzily, of a pile of puppies, tumbling each other over, wriggling with animal joy.
Chrissy swore, voice high and thick. He was staring too, transfixed by the weird crisis of his entrails. “That’s–” he said. “Oh, God.” He gave a high laugh, with an edge of mania to it, and looked up at Leo. There was a dark gleam of fright in his wide eyes. “This is all wrong,” Chrissy said. “All wrong. I do know. But I don’t — I don’t think I can make it stop.”
Leo’s own stomach seemed to contract. He wanted to wipe that look away, to quiet that note of fear, of self-disgust.
It wasn’t wrong. Chrissy alive, despite everything. It was remarkable. Extraordinary. A miracle.
With a kind of terrified reverence, he reached towards the writhing mass, his eyes darting to Chrissy’s frightened face.
At the first shaky contact, that look did disappear: Chrissy’s eyes shut tight, and he mewled like a kitten.
The sound seemed to drug Leo, to turn his head. He became less tentative, slipped intoxicated fingers further amongst the firm coils, until most of his hand was inside Chrissy’s hot belly, caressed all around by slick, sinewy muscle.
The obscene noise of them was barely audible now, crowded out by Chrissy’s open-mouthed, pleading little huffs of sound. His head was tipped back, and he was staring at the sky with glazed eyes. Leo stroked at him, curled his fingers against mobile, softly yielding flesh.
When he got a loose fist around the thickness of the tube, Chrissy made a high strangled noise, and came, hips jerking up off the rock.
His guts seized and spasmed, wrapping tight around Leo’s hand; they went on twitching rhythmically, like a series of deep convulsive sobs, even as the proof of his climax began to soak darkly through the white cotton of his boxer shorts. It felt like the most natural thing in the world to stay there with a hand buried inside him and watch that wetness spread — to stroke a gentle thumb against the coil in his fist, wring the last shred of feeling from Chrissy and have him whining.
There was movement, at Leo’s feet. He looked down. The soil around the rock was quick, suddenly, with a wild mass of plant matter. Supple stems began to throw themselves up towards the sun and bud forth all over, in festive, erratic bursts — incredibly fast. Within seconds the foliage was brilliant all over with the blithe white faces of dog-roses, petals broad and trembling, stamens laden with yellow pollen. They brushed against Leo’s shoes, his flannels: One thin green tendril curled shyly around his ankle and shivered there against his sock.
Leo’s head swam a little; his legs felt unsteady. He was aware at the edge of his perception of more, all around them, more growth, more life — but part of him was scared to look up at it, in case it was the stroke of impossibility that finally pushed him over the edge into stark, raving lunacy. Instead, with the impulsive fervour of one reaching for a talisman, he looked back at Chrissy as he lay there, his face still vivid with feeling, his guts still clutching softly at Leo’s hand.
The air was heavy with the smell of flowers, of dripping golden nectar, and with that tart, honeyed scent — stronger than ever.
Peaches, and figs, Leo thought, dizzily, and Chrissy, and suddenly could not bear to be standing there, not kissing him. To see him lying there, unkissed.
He climbed up onto the altar, got a knee between Chrissy’s parted thighs, knelt over him and brought their mouths together. Chrissy reached up, twisted his fingers into Leo’s hair, mumbled something softly against his lips.
“Leo,” he said, and then, half a gasp: “’S’good. Need you– More. So–” Then he trailed off, melting into the kiss.
And Leo had an idea — unhinged, daring. He gently slipped his hand free from the docile tangle in Chrissy’s belly and moved it up to stroke at his sternum. Here, finally, was something he did know — had seen enough photos and drawings and dusty remains in dim archival vaults that he knew it blind. He traced the knobs of cartilage that bloomed and branched out from the bottom of the breastbone, on the left side, counting.
Did bones, live bones, have nerves? Should they feel? Each gentle pet drew moans of drowsy ecstasy from Chrissy, had his hand clenching helplessly in Leo’s hair, and should seemed to have very little meaning.
Three close bumps of cartilage under his fingers, then up to a fourth, and then Leo’s own thin blood was jumping like mad and he was rubbing at the rounded beginning of a fifth. Third rib down from the top, on the left.
Chrissy had gone pliant and panting, lips slack, just hanging onto Leo’s hair and letting him lick into his hot mouth. Each ragged breath pushed his ribs into Leo’s hand, smooth bone against tentative fingers.
Leo was so hard it hurt, a heavy throb between his hips.
He slipped his fingers down, off the bone — just his first two, like a priest giving a blessing — and dipped them into the fibrous band of muscle between Chrissy’s ribs.
And there his plans ended: There he had intended to stay, a gentle, devoted pressure against Chrissy’s soft centre. But the tissue parted sweetly, easily, impossibly beneath his fingers, let him right in.
Naturally, he thought dimly, mind working again somewhere in the distance, pulling in impossibilities with meek wonder and fitting them haltingly together. Naturally it let him in, because it hadn’t occurred to Chrissy that it should not.
His own pulse was a deafening crash in his head; his heart a tremor in his chest. He flexed his hand, reached deeper, and found what he was looking for, brushed against it.
Movement under his fingers: a firm, powerful mass of muscle. Smooth and spongy, slick with fluid, spasming with life. Chrissy’s striving heart.
Chrissy tossed his head back against the hard white rock, and screamed.
It was a high, ringing sound — wild, exultant. The woods around them erupted with noise, movement: Every tree seemed to shiver at once, and a hundred clattering clouds of brand-new birds shot into the sky.
Chrissy shuddered into another orgasm, back arched, pressing — God, pressing into Leo’s touch, his kiss-stung mouth thrown open. His free hand was clawing at the altar, and suddenly the rock wasn’t that bare, shiny white anymore. A flood of pearly peppermint-grey had rushed out under Chrissy’s fingers, clothing it in colour: lichen. Leo could feel it shimmer and form under his bare elbow — raspy, like the tongue of a cat.
It seemed to go on forever: an hour, an eternity, spent feeling Chrissy’s heart flutter under his fingertips and listening to his sobs. Those shuddering, gasping sobs — sounds of such rapturous abandon that Leo felt soaked in them, like he might come from that noise alone, that noise and the look on Chrissy’s face.
Chrissy’s eyes were half-closed; there was a pale flash under his lids, and for an instant Leo thought his eyes had rolled back, but it was something else, something more. An impossible internal light beaming forth from somewhere indefinable inside Chrissy, sunshine spilling through his shivering lashes. Moss — slow, dense and springy; a deep velvet green — had begun to bloom up through the gaps between his fingers. It thickened and spread and trimmed itself in gold, a fringe of minute bell-like flowers.
Then Chrissy’s sobs pitched higher, threaded with something like panic: His heart gave a spasm that was frighteningly violent, and it began, with uncanny abruptness, to rain — plump, warm drops that came plunging out of a clear sky, splattering off the rock and all that brave new greenery, soaking the back of Leo’s shirt, plastering his hair to his skull.
Too much. Pure instinct had Leo snatching his fingers back from the warm clutch of Chrissy’s chest, his own heart in his throat. He did all he could think of, and stroked gently, urgently at Chrissy’s face, his hair, getting it messy. He might have been mumbling something, something nonsensical and soothing. He might have been crooning Chrissy’s name.
Chrissy’s sobs quieted a little. Leo breathed, and pressed careful kisses to his cheek — his forehead — his eyelids, where the heat under the delicate skin was enough to make his lips sting.
Finally, the pattering of the rain slowed to a halt, save for the occasional fat drip from a leaf. That celestial glow behind Chrissy’s eyelids faded softly. His lashes, bright and heavy with tears, fluttered open. He blinked up at Leo.
“Crikey,” he said, voice raw and shaking. “Leo.”
“All right?” It came out a little frantic, a little hysterical — but Leo felt he could be forgiven that.
Chrissy sat up, with what looked like some effort, and dashed a hand at his eyes, pushed his wet hair back from his face. He gave a high, cracked laugh, and leaned in to rest his forehead against Leo’s chest. “Don’t know, really,” he said, into Leo’s shirt. “But that was — my God.”
Leo looked up, finally, to find that the clearing wasn’t a clearing anymore, but a shining riot of green: grasses, bushes, curling vines, twangy, slender saplings that stuck up like exclamation marks. Everywhere the leaves were restless with the stirrings of animal activity. The air sparkled all over, still lively with bugs.
Yes, Leo thought, dazedly. My God.
Chrissy had raised his head too, but he didn’t seem all that interested in the fresh miracle that had unfolded around them: He was looking at Leo. His eyes were huge and dark and lit deep within by a spark of that wild, ancient light — and yet their expression was so familiar, so dear.
“Leo,” he said. “Leo. Could I — I’d rather like–“
Then his gaze drifted past Leo’s shoulder, and he stopped talking.
There was a huge grass snake — impossibly huge, thicker than Leo’s wrist — curling up over the edge of the altar, the movement of its scaled body making a soft, hushing noise.
“Christ,” Chrissy said, emptily, and darted a caught-out, bashful look up at Leo, his eyes wider than ever. He looked more golden than ever, too — almost glowing with it across his cheeks and shoulders, his split-open chest — and it occurred to Leo that this might be how Chrissy blushed, now. That the shimmering, silky liquid still clinging thickly to his hands, smelling so sweet it was making him dizzy, might be what Chrissy had for blood.
Leo’s hand was drawn, as though magnetised, to Chrissy’s cheek; he felt the warmth humming there under the skin.
“What’s wrong?” Leo asked. “Not scared of snakes, are you?” He had an idea that he might have been scared of snakes, at one time. It didn’t really seem to register, right now.
Chrissy huffed out a laugh and shook his head, his eyes tracking that narrow form as it slid implacably across the stone, off and away into the grass.
“Well,” he said, something wry in his voice. “Cheerio snake, and cheerio subtlety.” Then he turned into the shelter of the palm still cupping his cheek, and licked — frankly, deliberately — at Leo’s wet thumb, at his own slickness there.
Leo stared, spell-bound, head suddenly light with a rush of half-comprehended lust.
Chrissy grinned up at him — simple and affectionate and radiant and bizarre. “I was thinking of sucking your cock,” he said. “Any objection?”
Leo felt dazed. He felt magnificent. Anything, he thought, anything — any offering, any service. Any sacrifice. It’s yours, Chrissy.
“Splendid idea,” he said — and laughed, giddy, when the entire green glade burst into flower.
⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘ ⚘
By the time they actually got around to lunch, the sun was beginning to set. They sat in the sand in the falling dusk, listening to the waves, and ate peaches. Or Leo ate peaches, and fed a slice or two to the plump, grey rabbits that they’d found there, taking baths in the dust. Chrissy wasn’t hungry. But he licked the juice off Leo’s fingers.
“I saw Ralph,” Leo said, at last. “He looked a little worse for wear.”
He didn’t really want to talk about Ralph, not ever again. Saying the name was enough to send a cold spike of dread straight through him: He could still feel the phantom grip of fingers against his throat, the bruising lump of the Peveril signet ring. But at some point he knew they’d have to talk about it and, what with one thing and another, he was feeling rather brave right now.
“Oh,” Chrissy said, and sat up, gently letting the rabbit that had been lying on his stomach topple, roly-poly style, into his lap. In what Leo suspected was a sudden fit of bashfulness, he’d covered up the gash in his chest, pulling on an undershirt and his pink pyjama trousers: After everything, their air of boy-scout modesty was touchingly absurd.
“Yes,” Chrissy went on, eyes on the waves. “I didn’t mean to. But when he — you know. They just sort of — you know. Came out.” He sighed, and held out a loosely closed hand: When he opened it there was something winged and impossible sitting there, black and yellow and odd. Chrissy looked down at it with a tight, miserable twist to his mouth. “Sounded like they hurt him,” he said. “All a bit horrid.”
Leo watched the creature twitch its inquisitive antennae, tasting the air for the first time; he watched it flex its tiny shining wings. He felt his spirit thrill, let that fresh awe fill him up and move him. He reached out. “Not all of it,” he said, and — gently, very gently — stroked the tip of his finger against the creature’s warm thorax.
It wasn’t put together like any bee Leo had ever seen, but it was soft like one. At his words, his touch, its abdomen began to glow.
When Leo laughed, amused and wondering, more little sparks of dancing light appeared in the air all around them. A couple of them settled in Chrissy’s hair, crawling amongst the golden strands like a mobile glowing crown.
Leo looked up at him, at the soft, shy curve of his mouth. There was something sharp in his throat that felt a little like fear, but wasn’t. Leo thought it might be hope. “You know he took the boat,” he said, a little more carefully.
Chrissy looked back at him, eyes dark and full of reflected flecks of winged fire. “’Fraid so. What now?”
Leo cast a look behind him at the island, green all over now and spotted with colour even in the falling dusk: flowers, funghi, fruit. The path down to the beach had been lined with patches of wild strawberries, and thick marrows that made Chrissy blush gold — made Leo laugh.
He was sitting on a beach on the edge of civilisation, next to a beautiful boy with a rabbit in his lap and the spring under his skin. His shirt was covered in dirt and sap and peach juice. His only friend in the world had tried to kill him, and almost succeeded. He’d almost died. He’d seen Chrissy vivisected. He’d been more frightened than he knew was possible. He had no way of getting back to Cambridge. He was probably never going to finish his thesis.
It was the happiest day of Leo’s life. So far.
“Well,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll starve, do you?”
When Chrissy leaned over and kissed him, he tasted like heaven. Sweet, and strange, and right.