by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by serenity_winner
Everyone knew about Professor Thomas Oakley. He was a brilliant scholar and translator of Medieval and Renaissance European literature, respected by all in his field. He had a handsome, aquiline profile so regal and stern that even his rare smiles looked serious. He had a deep, rich voice, with an accent so perfect he might have walked out of Buckingham Palace right into his Connecticut classroom, where twitterpated young women and men packed the desks, ready to listen to lectures on things they didn’t care about just for the pleasure of hearing him speak. And he was gay as the day was long.
That last part was supposed to be a secret, but everyone still knew, even though students and colleagues alike feigned ignorance. Questions about his personal life were deflected, often with claims that academia was too jealous a mistress to leave him time for less cerebral pursuits. Students, of course, were prone to speculate about anyone, usually with flimsy evidence: his sharp fashion sense, his impeccable grooming, the general air of silent noble suffering that hung about him like his own personal raincloud. But during that one holiday party where Professor Darzi had looked ready to pop right out of her festive red-and-green neckline, no one had seen him look anywhere but her eyes, and that had made a believer out of the faculty in general.
It was true, of course, but it was also a red herring. What no one really knew about Professor Thomas Oakley had nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his books, and that was the way he wished to keep it.
“A curse?” asks Hrothan Sword-Bonded, his eyebrows drawn in a frown.
For a long moment, the dark elf says nothing. He has nothing about him of a man with a curse — Hrothan has seen such sorry folk before, as wretched outward as they are within. But there is nothing to Áodán’s countenance that would indicate such a thing; indeed, his dusky face is all but unlined, and though he stands a full head shorter than Hrothan, his posture is neither stooped nor is his spine bent. Indeed, though they have only been on the same path a short while, every move of Áodán’s has been graceful and swift, seemingly unfettered by any magical weight.
Even so, Hrothan thinks, a great sadness surrounds him, one too weighty to be dismissed as the natural air of his people. Though Áodán has until now kept the hood of his traveling cloak up about his face, it has come loose in the scuffle, revealing that his ash-white hair, instead of flowing long in the custom of other elves, has been shorn nearly to his scalp. And now, as Áodán stares at the body on the ground, Hrothan can see that sadness shading into the even heavier weight of resignation.
“I have returned from the Deathless Lands,” Áodán says at last, his deep voice suffused with the sounds of his native elvish tongue. “When I was young and foolish, I thought to set a challenge to the Great Lady, after a plague had taken so many of our people. But one does not leave the Deathless Lands unchanged. I returned with none of them and less of me, and with my failure left my homeland far behind. And that is all I wish to say of it.”
Hrothan’s storm-grey gaze returns to the man on the ground: a thief, indeed, but in only the harshest lands Hrothan has visited has that been a crime worthy of execution. “His hand merely lit upon your neck–”
“It is enough,” Áodán snaps, his voice as sharp as the knives at his hips. He holds a hand outstretched before him, its gloved palm pressed forward as a warning. “Take care, sellsword, or his fate will become yours, and though the intent may not be mine, the doing will be.”
“In every curse is its breaking,” says Hrothan.
Áodán snorts and begins to stamp off down the road — as heavily as elves ever stamp, that is, which even for the largest among them barely rustles the leaves beneath their feet. “And to every challenge, a fool.”
He’d expected someone young: an annotated version of one Important Medieval Work or another was, after all, the sort of project best suited for a second book, a safe toe into scholarship someone might actually find useful, following the first-book publication of one’s invariably unreadably dry dissertation. That, combined with how his name was unfamiliar, led Thomas to conclude that his appointment was with someone relatively new into the field, probably a recent graduate or a postdoctoral student, fonder of research than of other pursuits, the type of person drawn to something as at once familiar and obscure as Chaucer.
He’d been right about all of that, but he still hadn’t quite been ready for Dr. Grey. Standing well over six feet tall, his brown hair blown wild by the spring winds, Dr. Grey was so attractive that when he walked into the office, Thomas forgot for a moment how to speak in any of the eight languages (medieval, modern, and constructed) he knew.
More than just being young, even, Dr. Grey looked young, with his brown beard shaggy in a way two days out from a trim and a hoodie peeking out from beneath his brown corduroy jacket. Thomas’ first assessment of the situation had in fact been to apologize to this non-traditional student, but he was here for a meeting and his office hours would start at two. Yet though he looked not unlike a student, Dr. Grey comported himself like an equal. “Noel, please,” he insisted as he stretched his hand across Thomas’ desk for a handshake of greeting. Despite the late frost that cut through the April afternoon, his large, bony hand was a warm contrast to Thomas’ ever-chilly ones. He had a sweet lilt to his voice that made his own first name about a syllable and a half long. Thomas had moved to the United States to do his graduate work nearly two decades previous, but had never had any real ear for accents. Southern? Possibly.
“Thomas,” said Thomas in return, startled by his own casualness. Perhaps he was simply being self-indulgent, orchestrating things to put his own (admittedly quite plain) name in such a handsome man’s mouth.
“Thomas,” Noel repeated with a smile, and indeed, that had been worth it. He took the seat Thomas indicated on the opposite side of the cluttered desk, crossing his mile-long legs. Thomas counted himself fortunate that he was so long-practiced at keeping his facial expressions in check that he did not have to exert extraordinary effort to seem completely normal. Noel folded those beautiful, long hands atop his knee; he was as pale as Thomas himself, though he made his complexion look elegant, as opposed to Thomas, who always felt he looked a bit sickly, even with a dark beard masking half his own face. “They’ve got you tucked away down here, don’t they?”
“My little cave, yes.” Thomas’ office had a single window, but it was set so high in the wall and half-covered with stacked books that one could be forgiven for not noticing it. “It was all they had when I joined the faculty, and when other options opened up some years back, I weighed having a larger, brighter workspace against the effort of moving all my books.”
Looking around at the packed shelves covering nearly every square inch of wall space, Noel gave a little laugh. “No, I think you’ve found the perfect place to hoard your treasures. I’m frankly jealous. Half of my books are in storage, and that’s only because it was either that or have room for my bed. I’ve fallen asleep reading before, but even for me, that’d be a bit much.”
Despite his deep desire to remain as stoic and professional as possible, Thomas found a smile had begun to lift his mouth, and though he could fight it back with some small concentration, if he left it unchecked for even a moment, he’d return to find it there again, charmed into place by Noel’s entire being. But he reminded himself not to get too swept away, least of all by superficials. For starters, his ability to quip about his library did not necessarily correspond to its (or his) quality; for another, as Thomas had by necessity developed a sense for such things, he was all but certain Dr. Grey did not, as it were, lean in his direction.
Noel nodded, his smile eager. “I read your monograph on Troilus and Criseyde,” he said, reaching into the messenger bag slung across his shoulder and pulling out a file folder.
As he opened it, Thomas could see a printout of his first published paper that had gotten any real attention. “Ah, that, that’s–” Thomas cringed at the thought of its contents, which might as easily as held up as have been garbage; he hadn’t so much as glanced at it since he’d submitted it to the Chaucer Review nearly two decades previous. “That’s quite possibly utter rubbish, I’ll have you know.”
“No, it raises some interesting points.” As he flipped through the pages, a lock of damp hair fell into Noel’s face, and he brushed it away with a childish swat of his hand, leaving Thomas to wonder why on earth he was left lingering on a gesture as ordinary as that. “It’s actually shaped the entire way I’ve transliterated the pronunciation at times, trying to preserve the allophonic differences instead of just falling into traditional monophthonic assumptions. Which is, of course, what my advisor was convinced was the only correct way to go about it, so I’m afraid you’re not precisely in Dr. Hisakawa’s best graces at the moment.”
As though that were anything new. “I’ll apologize when I see her at the Benson Colloquium in July.”
“I don’t imagine it’ll be the first time,” quipped Noel with a smirk.
“And you don’t imagine rightly.” Thomas wasn’t impolite or combative or rude in any fashion to his colleagues; he just had an unfortunate habit of finding all the ways their scholarly assumptions were unfounded. He was rarely wrong, but among those who lived and died on the strength of their arguments about centuries-old pieces of text, that didn’t make him immensely popular at gatherings. “Goodness, doesn’t that make me sound awful?”
Noel cackled, but the smile on his face indicated he thought no such thing about the professor across the desk from him. “Forget it, Jake, it’s Academia.”
At least Thomas hadn’t shut himself off from the world of cinema so early that he’d been rendered incapable of understanding that reference. He chuckled in reply, and Noel brightened at the evidence that his joke had hit its mark. “Still, if not for our colossal egos, we’d hardly get anything done,” Thomas remarked, and he felt a flush of pleasure rise to his cheeks when Noel laughed again. Was Noel merely humoring him, laughing at jokes in the way subordinates might pander to a superior, or was he actually earning his guest’s smiles? And since when had Professor Thomas Oakley made a point of doing that?
“Some days I think we should all just give up our desk jobs and become runway models. More attention, and I actually think it’d be a step down in terms of vicious infighting.”
Thomas had to laugh at the thought of his colleagues, many of whom should by all rights have retired entire decades previous, strutting down a catwalk in haute couture. “Then they’d all be jealous of your natural advantage,” he said, realizing only as the words left his mouth that though he’d intended the comment to be nothing more than an acknowledgment of the objective facts of Noel’s youth and general facial symmetry, it had come out far closer to a reflection of what he really thought about Noel and his general attractiveness.
Ready to do anything from apologizing for nearing sexual harassment to leaping out the window and living in the woods to the end of his days, Thomas was in no way prepared for how Noel looked up through those thick, pretty eyelashes of his and said, “You mean, our natural advantage.”
How they turned the conversation to Chaucer after that, Thomas could not recall, because though the professorial part of his brain could run on autopilot, every other cubic centimeter of his grey matter was wrapped up in trying not to blush, swoon, fall over, and/or die, in any combination.
And it wasn’t as though focusing on cerebral pursuits made Noel any less attractive to Thomas; on the contrary, Thomas could hear his own heart pulse harder every time Noel said something like ‘intradiegetic material’ or ‘ritual equilibrium’ or ‘aesthetic, literary heterocosm’. Had Noel’s appearance fallen outside the scope of Thomas’ criteria for physical attractiveness, or had he not had a sensible original thought in his head, Thomas would easily have been able to calm himself and give his entire brain to the task of discussing sociolinguistics and literary pragmatism with this young man. As it was, overcoming the combination of brains and beauty was indeed proving a Herculean labor.
Even so, it was necessary, for though Noel had made the earlier comment, Thomas hadn’t taken long before disabusing himself of the notion that it might have been more than polite, reciprocal discourse. Americans were like that; one wished another a good day, and the second made the same wish reflexively in kind, with neither one caring in the slightest whether it were true. Besides, Noel had worked with Mariko, who like her institution was stuffy and conservative in more ways than one, and surely he would not long have put up with that sort of environment were he truly–
A rapping sound startled Thomas, and his head jerked toward the doorway with guilty speed, as though he’d been doing something wholly scandalous instead of having a proper discussion with a fellow scholar in his own office with the door half-open anyway. “Professor Oakley?” asked Tamara, a timid sophomore whose academic anxieties made her a regular visitor to his office hours — which, he noticed with a glance to the clock a nearby shelf, had started twelve minutes previous. “I just wanted to drop this by and–”
“Oh, no, I should be going,” said Noel, turning that amazing smile of his on Tamara; she blushed in reply, and Thomas was glad to see the impulse to do so wasn’t his alone. “You’ll have to forgive us crusty old academics; we’ll yammer on for days if someone doesn’t stop us.” Noel stood, tossing the strap of his back over his shoulder as he did, but he let the weight of it pull him forward over the desk in a motion only made graceful by his slender limbs. He produced a brown business card out of the inner pocket of his jacket, then snatched one of the pens off Thomas’ desk. “I’ll be in the area through tomorrow, so let me leave you a number where you can get me.”
“Of course.” Thomas stood and took the card from Noel’s hand, and through all the self-control he could muster slipped it into his pocket instead of reading it right there. He extended a hand instead. “A pleasure speaking with you, Dr. Grey.”
Noel smiled with his whole face, but winked only on the side that couldn’t be seen from the door. “The pleasure was all mine.”
As it turned out, Tamara wasn’t the only one that day who needed his attentions; three others from her class also had questions about their final papers, and it was all Thomas could do to respond to them calmly and rationally and not vibrate into an altered state with the anxiety of having that business card so close to his heart. It was probably professional. It was certainly professional. It was stupid to think otherwise, and he was going to give himself ulcers with the possibility that there was anything other than the number of a hotel’s front desk scrawled there. And by the fourth student, he’d calculated that if one more showed up at his door he was going to explode.
But as that fourth made his exit, no more were immediately forthcoming, so he jammed his hand into that pocket and flipped out the card. The front told Thomas nothing he couldn’t get from the signatures of Noah’s emails, but on the back — oh, on the back was scrawled not a number, but the name of a cafe on the main drag and 6:00?, as though there might be any possibility in the world Thomas might answer that question with a ‘no’.
The arrow shoots past his head so close it stirs the copper hairs beside his ear, and Hrothan’s first thought is that Áodán has finally decided to kill him, and though the first shot has missed, the second will not be far behind it. But Áodán has had many chances to end him before this, and Hrothan has never known the elf’s aim to be untrue. Keeping his back to Áodán, Hrothan searches for the arrow’s resting place and sees it embedded in a tree, with a fell crow impaled upon it.
There is no time for questions. Hrothan’s sword is out of his sheath and in his hand almost without conscious thought on his part, and in the next moment, it has sliced through three more of the beasts. They are more shadow than substance, and the inky black residue they leave on his reforged blade has a noxious reek. “From the Pash Falgum?” shouts Hrothan, steadying his horse; though a stalwart beast, it has good sense enough to be fearful of the dark cloud filling the sky.
“No!” Áodán calls back, pulling his own mount up alongside Hrothan’s. “They do not send beasts to do their work.”
“Then who?” Above them, the heavens themselves seem to swirl as the malevolent birds circle above the tops of the trees. “And how did they know we were here?”
A low howl rolls through the forest surrounding them, and whatever plans Hrothan has had to dismount and make on foot for cover disappear at its sound. Áodán’s face is drawn, his fingers perched at the string of his bow. Side by side now, their horses stamp, but dutifully do not bolt, though Hrothan is not sure how much longer they have before fear overtakes them all. Another chilling howl warns them the beasts on the ground are getting closer, while the beasts of the air hold their courses steady. “Well,” says Áodán, his eyes on the birds, “we run, we wait, or we fight.”
“We can’t run.” Hrothan’s hand tightens on the grip of his sword; he can feel its power resonate deep within him, begging him for use. “The first clearing we come to, they’ll swarm.”
Áodán nods. “And I will not sit idly by and wait for the battle to be decided at their leisure.”
Despite the dire edge of their predicament, Hrothan can’t hold back the smirk that curls the corner of his mouth. “How many arrows have you, elf?”
The disdain is clear in Áodán’s snorted reply, yet Hrothan swears he sees a twinkle in his companion’s eye — a murderous one, perhaps, but a twinkle nonetheless. “Enough. And if you bother to join the fray, I might even end with one or two left over.”
“If I–” Hrothan barks out a laugh. “On second thought, save your strength. Find a comfortable low branch, take a nap. I’ll wake you when I’m done.”
Áodán snorts again, this time with an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “I’d wake to find myself having to deal with your corpse, and I’d prefer to avoid that chore.”
“Then try to keep up!” shouts Hrothan, charging forward as the swirling mass of foul, dark-summoned beasts churns and dips in reply. He does not look back as he holds his sword aloft, readying it to strike, but he hears hoofbeats from close behind him, and thus he meets his enemy with a smile.
Professional, Thomas reminded himself as he dressed in a deep maroon cardigan and slacks. Professional, he repeated as he strolled the mile between his small house and what passed for a bustling center of this tiny college town. Professional, he echoed with every breath, trying to keep himself from breaking into a telltale sweat on a such a nippy Spring evening.
And then he arrived and there was a candle on the table and a bottle of wine waiting in a bucket beside it, and no, Thomas realized, this wasn’t professional at all.
He was almost to the table when Noel saw him — and stood, like a real gentleman, giving the sides of his blazer a little tug to straighten it. He hadn’t changed since their last meeting, though Thomas figured that was reasonable, and perhaps even preferable, that he hadn’t come all the way from Boston packed for a date. And it was a date, because Noel didn’t extend his hand for a professional shake, but instead beamed that sun-bright smile, as though Thomas might be some vision of unfathomable beauty instead of an associate professor in a cardigan that he just remembered he’d spilled coffee on at the last faculty meeting. So there was that.
“Hello,” Thomas said as the waiter pulled out his chair.
“Hi,” said Noel, all five southern syllables’ worth.
The best part of meeting at restaurants, Thomas had learned during his pathetically small dating history, was that the matter of the menu provided both instant conversation topic and sneaky way to get to know someone. In short order, he’d learned that Noel was a very bad vegetarian, quite open to recommendations, and the kind of man to encourage someone else’s decision to order a particular dish so that he could try a bite (which tied back to the bad vegetarianism). He was also, it seemed, the sort of man who not only knew how to manage the BYOB-ness of a small Connecticut restaurant, but had quite the taste for wines. “I love a good Merlot,” said Thomas as he sipped, which was true.
“Good, because when I looked at you, I thought, now there’s a Merlot sort of man,” said Noel, who could only withstand a moment of Thomas’ visible confusion before cracking. “No, I’m kidding. I love a good Merlot. Or a half-decent one, anyway. Right on the underside of where you start paying for the bottle and stop paying for what’s in it, but still expensive enough to be impressive anyway. I think. How am I doing?”
Thomas took another sip of wine and hoped the charmed flush he felt in his cheeks wasn’t too obvious. “I’d say you’ve hit your mark,” he said over the lip of the glass, as the waiter brought them a bread basket.
Dinner continued their conversation from earlier, and Thomas was more than happy to let Noel carry much of it. Not only did he have a lovely voice, he genuinely enjoyed his research, and his enthusiasm was evident through every description of misplaced cadence and subtle wordplay that would drive most to tears of boredom and frustration. Thomas, on the other hand, did not have to feign interest, which was perhaps what spurred Noel on; it was hard to imagine he’d had many audiences even half as engaged. Part of the curse of academia was forever resigning one’s self to an interest so niche, only a handful of other people in the world would likely ever care at all, much less care deeply. Finding one of those was better than Christmas morning.
As delightful as Noel had been earlier, he was twice as much so here, allowing himself to ramble and tangent now that the specific business of the visit had been conducted. He dipped and delved into his family history as he did — the only child of wealthy Oklahomans in the oil business, himself having had less than zero interest in said business — but never losing his train of Chaucerian thought in the process. And he wasn’t just well-educated; Noel was smart, gifted with English in all its forms, historical and modern. It was good, then, that he was doing all the talking, Thomas reflected. He liked Noel, really liked him, and wanted to stave off disillusionment as long as possible.
Almost before he’d noticed more than a few minutes had passed, the bottle of wine was empty and their check had come and Thomas was certain that when he stood, his feet wouldn’t touch the ground. “We pay up front,” he said, rising from his chair anyway, and when Noel reached for their ticket, Thomas snatched it out of reach. “Oh, no. You bought the wine. This is the least I can do.”
“Fair enough,” Noel conceded with a smile, though as he stood, he picked up from the floor a paper bag. “Actually, I bought two bottles, and … well, I may have had some very good college days, but at my age, there’s no way I can finish it all by myself.”
Thomas knew it wasn’t the wine alone that was making his head spin. “Do, ah, do you–” He swallowed and ran his fingers through his hair, cursing how badly he really needed a haircut. “Might I offer my assistance in helping you out there?”
“I would be honored to accept, good sir,” said Noel with a theatrical bow. Thomas very manfully did not giggle. He was certain of it. Even under torture he would never say otherwise.
He paid the check with Noel’s arm around his waist, and he knew he should have done a better job of hiding it all, he knew, but … he blamed the alcohol, but he felt so free. He’d never allowed himself this kind of ostentatious luxury before, the indulgence of touching and being touched in public. It felt so wicked, so cavalier, and doubly so as they stepped outside and Noel swung him into a drunken embrace right there on the sidewalk, beneath the streetlamp, their lips pressed together in a kiss most chaste, but full of promise. “My hotel’s just across the way,” Noel whispered in his ear, and Thomas was full of the word ‘yes’.
The second bottle of wine never saw a corkscrew that night. It stayed right where Noel set it down just inside the door, snug in its brown paper sack, while Noel draped his long arms around Thomas’ neck and kissed him across the distance between the floor and the bed. Somehow their shoes and at least one of their socks got left along the way, and Thomas saw his cardigan tossed over the footboard as he fell back on the mattress. How was this all even possible? Maybe it was magic.
There was nothing illusory about the weight of Noel’s body on top of Thomas’, though; that was real and sturdy and strong. Either Noel was less drunk or just more dexterous in general than Thomas, because Thomas found his own shirt open and pushed back from his chest even as he was still struggling with the top button of Noel’s slacks. Noel laughed as he bent down to kiss Thomas’ jaw, just at the line of his beard, then moved on down his chest with little kisses and nips. Thomas pushed the back of his hand against his mouth to keep quiet, and it almost worked.
As Noel’s mouth found his cock, Thomas gasped in delight, grabbing for Noel’s hair. He had such beautiful, soft hair, unlike Thomas’ own coarse, oily mess, and Thomas would have been more interested in admiring it had he not been far more focused on that talented southern tongue that ran up the length of his shaft. Noel grinned as he did so, enjoyment written all over his face. Beneath his mussed hair, he looked rakish, almost wicked, like some wild warrior come in from the–
No, Thomas reminded himself, focusing his surroundings. This was real, he was in a chain hotel room in Connecticut, and no one here was anything that required explanations that included job class. The world was mundane almost by definition, and that was enough for everyone else in it. He was being blown by a beautiful, talented, intelligent, sexy academic who seemed to possess no gag reflex. For anyone else, that would be enough to write a whole Penthouse letter about, much less to focus on.
And it was definitely enough to get him off, as it wasn’t long before Thomas began gasping. “Right there, I’m–” he managed as a warning. Noel responded by taking Thomas’ shaft all the way into his mouth. When Thomas came, it was almost inside Noel’s throat, and Noel swallowed it all, then sucked him dry before letting Thomas’ now-soft cock fall from his mouth. Truly, Thomas would have been a fool to have had a single complaint about any of that.
When Noel came back up to the bed, Thomas took his face in his hands and kissed him good and proper, then nudged him back toward the staggering pile of pillows stacked by the headboard. “You’re really quite talented,” Thomas said, finding it much easier to get Noel’s trousers undone when he went for the belt first.
“Oh, good,” said Noel, laughing. “I was afraid I might be a little out of practice there.”
The idea of a man as handsome as Noel going more than a day without access to being the object of someone’s sexual gratification baffled Thomas, but it pleased him as well; if this was something of a special occurrence for Noel, well, perhaps that meant Thomas was a bit special too. “Fair warning, I might be instead.”
Noel smiled and stroked Thomas’ beard. “How could you be anything but wonderful?”
In lieu of telling Noel not to get his hopes up, Thomas freed Noel’s cock from its fabric confines and took it into his mouth. It was slim and circumcised, the latter of which was still a bit curious to Thomas, despite his having had a number of American lovers since hopping the proverbial pond. It was responsive most of all, though, and it twitched against Thomas’ tongue as he learned its contours and taste. Noel had a bright, clean quality that suffused his entire being, from the clear bell tones of his laugh to the warm, citric tang of his skin. Everything about him was like summer.
Perhaps Thomas was indeed a bit rusty, but one would never have known it from the way Noel was panting. “You must be a talented teacher, with a mouth like that,” Noel said, his speech a heavy murmur. As Thomas’ tongue skimmed the underside of his cock head, Noel lifted his back from the bed for a moment, then flopped back down. “Fuck, that’s good.”
It was fine encouragement, so Thomas focused on making that happen again, and again. Noel wasn’t shy about what he liked or how much he liked it, which made Thomas’ job that much easier. He’d never loved giving head for the sake of giving head, and he always felt a bit exposed as it was happening, but there was still something wonderful to knowing how much pleasure he was bringing the man in his mouth. Noel had had his chance earlier to impress Thomas with wine, after all; now it was Thomas’ turn.
When Noel finally came, it was with a loud gasp, and Thomas pulled his mouth back just in time to see Noel’s cock shoot up ropes of come as Thomas stroked him through his orgasm. Sometimes men got shirty about Thomas’ doing that, but Noel seemed just as pleased as he’d ever been, grinning as he looked at the scene before him. “Not out of practice at all,” he declared, and Thomas laughed as he let himself be dragged back up for another kiss. They both tasted like wine and semen, but the combination had its charms in certain contexts — even if they were thoroughly mundane ones.
The bed was wonderful, and Noel was even more wonderful, and all Thomas wanted in the world was to curl up there and stay the night, if not forever. But he hadn’t gotten this far in his life without some serious dedication to his responsibilities. “I have a morning class tomorrow,” he said with a sigh.
Noel kissed his bared shoulder. “Cancel it?” he asked, with a grin mischievous enough that Thomas could tell he didn’t expect a yes, but was hopeful anyway.
Thomas sighed again, this time longer and sadder, before kissing Noel once on his lips, then sliding out of bed. “Besides, it’s still early enough yet in the evening that I don’t think this quite counts as a Walk of Shame.”
Cackling, Noel fell back to the bed. “Oh, say that again, that’s amazing in your accent.”
“Walk of Shame?” repeated Thomas, which made Noel laugh again. “Walk. Of. Shame,” Thomas said again, this time in his weightiest, most didactic RP, and Noel rolled with delight hard enough that Thomas feared he might fall off the bed.
“Stop, stop!” Noel wiped tears from his cheeks. “I’ve created a monster!”
“I fear I was monstrous before you got here,” Thomas informed him in his most casual tone, shrugging on his cardigan as he did. Thank goodness the issue of the coffee stain hadn’t seemed to matter at all. Perspective was amazing.
“Then I’ve just revealed your true nature,” Noel said, and though he’d surely meant it as a light quip, continuing their banter, that was the sentence that rattled around Thomas’ head his whole walk home. That was the whole problem, after all — that Noel hadn’t, and that if he had, he would have written off Thomas in an instant. Previous lovers had convinced Thomas wholly of this: that the well-educated expected a certain level of decorum from their own, and that any violations of this were justified cause for thinking less of someone.
And he’d had such a lovely time with Noel, and Noel had seemed to enjoy himself as well, and that was good. Not worth ruining, not tonight. Eventually, of course, it would slip out, whether he wanted it to or not. But not tonight.
Hrothan watches as Áodán peels back his black leather gloves, revealing skin beneath almost their same color, cast only in the light of the full moon above them. Áodán slaps the surface of the water three times, then slips his hands beneath its icy surface. When he catches Hrothan’s gaze upon him, he gives a small, self-conscious shrug. “Scaring the fish away,” he explains, giving the river one more noisy smack, as though to punish it for some wrongdoing. “Does us no good to have piles of dead minnows lining our only source of fresh water.”
“So it’s not only…” Hrothan gestures between them two of them, struggling to finish the sentence with the appropriate category.
Áodán shakes his head. “Hardier plant life seems at best indifferent; I wager I should have to embrace a tree at some length before it began to show the ill effects. But it would.” He lifts his hands and looks at his palms, then gives them a good shake before covering them again. He makes no expression as he tugs the leather back over his bared skin, or at least no expression Hrothan can read. The moon above them casts a glow not unlike daylight, but beneath its gaze everything is blue and cold, and Áodán coldest of all.
He has a handsome face, though, and though Hrothan knows he makes the estimation through human eyes, he has met enough elves in his day to gauge that Áodán would be considered comely by their standards as well. What ugliness he carries, he brings upon himself, with his short-shorn hair and the strips of shroud-like cloth he wraps around what Hrothan presumes is lovely, smooth skin. “Did you–” begins Hrothan, a question burst forth almost beyond his control, and when Áodán turns to him to hear the rest, Hrothan knows he can’t take it back now. “Whom … have you left behind?”
The question catches Áodán in a moment of raw confusion, eyes wide and brow furrowed, but it passes as Áodán shakes his head and produces a whetstone from his pocket. “My whole people, sellsword.” He produces a knife from his boot and begins to work at bringing the bite back to its edge. “I thought that much might have been obvious.”
Taking his pipe from his pack, Hrothan taps at the scraps of leaf still left in the bowl; the nearer they come to the steppes of Amdar ath Rai, the more both vegetation and civilization grow sparser and sparser, and he has no illusions about how long it will be before he can fill his pouch again. Still, he catches an errant spark from the campfire and puffs it to greater life. At last, when the sweet grey smoke begins to curl upwards into the chill air, Hrothan feels ready to ask again: “Whom among your people?”
Áodán does not so much as falter in his careful strokes, though Hrothan has no doubt Áodán has not only heard him, but understood the question the first time, and hoped a deflection might be enough to stop the line of inquiry before it began. Alas for him, Hrothan has not achieved anything in his life for a lack of tenacity. “You mean, did I have a lover?” asks Áodán, his voice as sharp and distant as the moon’s light reflected in the curve of his blade.
“Did you?” Hrothan catches the bit of the pipe in the corner of his teeth.
The movement of Áodán’s jaw is almost imperceptible, but Hrothan can see it, a hard setting, a steeling against pain old yet still raw. “I had two,” he says at last, and that in and of itself is a challenge — daring Hrothan to make some human fuss over such an arrangement. But Hrothan is quiet, and after a moment, Áodán continues: “The plague, it … when it took them, I gathered my bow and a day’s worth of rations — a day’s, I think now, on what hubris youth has — and followed them into the Deathless Lands. Though in truth I did no such thing; their souls have passed beyond where any can follow but the dead themselves.”
Hrothan nods, helpless as memories of his father and sister come unbidden to his mind. The grass atop their graves had been so warm as he’d pressed his face against it, sobbing and not caring who heard. Had he some hope at the time, some vague idea about what he might do to bring them back to him, he would not have hesitated an instant before grabbing his sword and rushing headlong into it. To tempt the mistress of death would have seemed a worthy exercise indeed, had he only known but how.
At last, Áodán runs his hand over the top his head, brushing fine strands of hair that have during their travels together grown long enough that the night wind blows them about. “In truth,” he says, his voice soft even in breaking the stillness around them, “it was hard to care for anyone else even before I brought this folly upon myself. They were … kind-hearted, tender, both of them, far more than ever I deserved.” Áodán takes his newly sharpened blade and dips it once in the water, then brings it to his dark brow, pulling it back with excruciating slowness. In its wake, moon-white hairs fall away.
To serve as another man’s barber is a simple enough task, such that Hrothan finds himself about to offer his assistance — and then catches himself before his lips can even part. The distance between them is greater even than the distance between them, far and frightening, and full of death. So instead he folds his own hands in his lap and watches as Áodán completes his task, until his shoulders and the ground at his feet are frosted as though with snow.
“Or perhaps,” Áodán continues, long after Hrothan has presumed the conversation concluded, “I was even almost worthy back then.”
“To love not one but two enough that you would follow them into death with your blade drawn?” Hrothan clucks his tongue, an impressed sound. “I did not know them, but I’d well wager that whatever their love for you, you proved yours matched to it then.”
Áodán’s mouth almost softens to a smile, but a bitter edge keeps it from sweetening his face. “Then perhaps my curse is a fitting memorial to them. I shall never love again, for none shall love me.”
Hrothan sighs and pulls the spits from the fire; the fish is cooked through, more or less, and Hrothan keeps the ‘less’ piece for himself while extending the ‘more’ in Áodán’s direction. “I know little of love,” he admits, “and less of being loved. But I know supper, and I freely share mine with you, and if it won’t make us less lonely, well, at least it will make us less hungry.”
And that, Hrothan is surprised to see, of all the things they’ve said to one another since their eventful first meeting, wins him a true, full smile.
He never knew how grateful to be for the Tolkien Renaissance, as he thought of it. He’d never actually seen the Jackson movies: at the time the first set had come out, the head of his department had been so vehemently opposed to what he’d deemed the ‘dumbing-down of the epic imagination’ that Thomas hadn’t dared show his face at any theater playing them — a fear which had held over when the Hobbit films had been released, though said senior professor had been by then long-retired and moved to Arizona. Likewise, Thomas had never had a TV in his home that wasn’t someone else’s, a habit he’d begun when he simply couldn’t afford one and continued as he’d discovered certain subsets of people took one more seriously when one could say, no, I don’t own a television.
And it wasn’t as though Tolkien had ever been too far on the fringes for academic respectability. Said department chair had, after all, been familiar enough with the books to take offense at the adaptation, and hadn’t been shy about voicing said opinion. Even if they focused their affection on the modern re-usage of historical archetypes, as the classicists did, or studying and expanding on the constructed languages, as the linguists did, scholars around Thomas had always found some way to make serious their pursuits.
No, Thomas’ gratitude came from the slew of imitators that had popped up in the movies’ wake. Seeking to capitalize on the renewed interest in the genre, publishers had begun to churn out by the truckload straight-to-paperback novels of sword and sorcery. They were garbage, most all of them, just pure trashy boilerplate escapist fantasy drivel. Few had anything original to say; some were almost straight-up retellings of Tolkien and Bradley and McCaffrey, with just enough changed to stave off potential lawsuits. Many of them were uncomfortably racist, sexist, homophobic, or some combination thereof. Some were even peppered with comma splices and unfortunate misspellings.
Thomas loved them. Unironically, and with his whole heart, he loved every single one of them. He didn’t love everything about them, of course — he had learned, through much trial and error, that sticking to the authors with women’s names was the best (though hardly surefire) way to avoid both the all-too-frequent gay-bashing and rape fantasies — but in a way, the worse they were, the more he loved them. Many hours had he spent in his office, looking lost in thought, thinking of ways the story he’d just read might have ended better.
Which was why he was now standing in what might indeed be the last mall bookstore in America, hidden from the door by tall stacks, trying to find something good and new — ‘good’ negotiable.
He’d thought about becoming a writer once, before he’d realized that there was a prohibitive bottleneck between the ideas in his head and the blank page in front of him. He’d written exactly one short story, agonizing over every single word as he went along, until he’d given the idea up for lost and found his release in the words of others. One hand nudged books along the shelves, tilting their spines out so he could see their fronts and backs; the other remained in his pocket, gripping his phone, waiting for it to buzz. There were humans who had rigid weekday schedules such that even weekends did not allow them to relax, and then there were those who seemed to have no obligations, such that they often slept to noon and later, regardless of the day. That was Noel, and Thomas was waiting for him to wake up.
They’d texted since Noel had left, not just every day, but several times every day. At first Thomas had found it an odd, and even alienating sort of communication, and he’d had no idea how Noel was adding in all the smiling yellow faces and random food objects. But he’d had to admit to seeing the appeal the first time he’d glanced down at his phone during a lecture, looking for how long he had left in the class, and found instead Thinking of you and a bright red rose trapped in a green text bubble. Perhaps there was something to be said for the future.
“Professor Oakley?” asked a familiar voice, and Thomas only barely managed not to jump out of his skin.
He turned to see two young ladies there — Brenna and Kelly, his brain supplied him after a moment’s searching — and through great practiced reflexes remembered to smile. “Hello,” he said, with great dignity, and not as though he’d just been caught browsing pornography, though he almost felt that would have caused him less anxiety. Fortunately, he’d found himself toward the end of that section’s alphabet. With a gesture that failed at being casual, he snatched a copy of The Silmarillion from the shelf, as though he’d meant to go for that all along. Reasons to be grateful. “What brings you ladies here today?”
Brenna glanced at the shelf, and her face brightened as her gaze fell on something just the shelf below. “A new Juno Urquhart novel,” she said, grabbing one of the rare front-facing books on display and holding it to her chest. “She’s so my favorite author. You know, except for Chaucer, of course.”
The good-humored reminder of the class they’d taken from him last semester made Thomas chuckle. “Alas, he’s not producing anything new, so it’s probably wise to have a backup.”
Both young ladies tittered, and Kelly placed an affectionate hand on Brenna’s hip. They’d met in his class, he was almost certain, and he appreciated both their regular invitations to campus LGBT events and how they’d never pressured him to go or chastised him for never attending. He couldn’t say all their rainbow-wearing predecessors had been so polite. “Have you ever read anything of hers?” Brenna asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Thomas said, and though he would have said it about any of the authors on the shelf, in this case it wasn’t a lie. “I don’t usually — that is, this isn’t my customary shelf.”
“Oh, of course,” said Brenna, who sounded perfectly credulous. “And I know you’re probably busy with a whole lot of other books. But if you ever get tired of that and just want something good and fun to read, you might check her out.”
“She’s converted me,” Kelly piped up, pointing one of her multi-ringed fingers at her girlfriend’s chosen book. “I’m usually more of the trashy gay romance novel type, but these are pretty good. And she made up a whole language for her elves.”
Now that had Thomas’ attention, and moreover, it had his attention about something he could present as academically valid. “A whole language,” asked Thomas, “as in some words and phrases, or…?”
“No, she’s got a glossary and grammar charts and stuff.” After handing her prospective purchase to Kelly, Brenna picked up another book with Urquhart’s name on the spine — The Daggers of Donascragh, its title read — and flipped through to the back. “I mean, I’m not a foreign language major or anything, but it looks pretty legit.”
She offered Thomas the book, and he took it and thumbed through the indicated pages. The information there was basic and undoubtedly simplified, to be sure, but the sample phrases had all the markings of a conlang toward which no small effort of development had been directed. “Indeed,” he said, running his fingertips down columns with script and pronunciation. It was amateur work, but even as he thought those words, he didn’t mean them as an insult; rather, it looked to be the creation of someone for whom the writing was more important than the linguistics, which he supposed only fair. “I’ll have to read up on these, thank you.”
“You’re welcome!” chirped Brenna brightly, and they chatted on for a few more minutes about what Thomas would be offering next semester (his usual Fall load) and whether he’d green-card them into his already-full seminar on the historical development of the English language (of course) before they walked off, hand in hand, toward the front counter. He watched them go with a smile he hoped wasn’t patronizing. It was just so nice to see young people with the confidence to be who they were, whenever they wanted to be it. He’d be lying to say he wasn’t the smallest bit jealous.
He waited another fifteen minutes after that, until they were well and truly gone, before bringing his purchases to the front counter. He dreaded the days when the clerks were genre fans and wanted to chat him up about this novel or that, but today the bored young man who scanned and bagged all fifteen of Thomas’ volumes didn’t so much as look Thomas in the eye when he asked about a rewards card. Thomas paid in cash, a bit of paranoia he allowed himself to indulge in, before taking his double-bagged books and heading for the mall exit at the closest he could get to a sprint without arousing suspicion.
In the car, he chastised himself for being foolish, the same way he always did after his bi-monthly trips. No one cared, he reminded himself. Even Brenna and Kelly hadn’t seemed surprised to find him there, or not any more so than students often were when they encountered their instructors going about their business as though they were indeed real people. They weren’t likely to go back and tell all their friends about what they’d seen Professor Oakley doing, or if they did, their friends weren’t likely to find it worth more than a moment’s thought. It wasn’t going to become the subject of campus gossip. It surely wasn’t going to get back to the other professors in the department — and even if that happened, they weren’t going to have any untoward thoughts about hearing that, oh no, one of their colleagues was spotted buying books in a bookstore. His rational mind knew that he could have taken all fifteen fantasy novels he’d just bought, plop them down atop the desk in his office, and get nothing more for it than a few honest, well-intentioned questions.
But the chance that it could be otherwise was more than he could take.
He was home before he opened the bags and stacked the contents on his to-read shelf, keeping only the first of the three Juno Urquhart novels. That, he took to the sunny breakfast nook, to join him and a cup of tea. As the kettle heated up, he glanced at the cover. The front was plain, decorated only with the cracked hilt of a weapon — he supposed G.R.R. Martin had ushered in a minimalist design craze — and the title, Sword-Bonded. The florid synopsis on the back promised that this would be the tale of Hrothan Erentley and his transformation from pampered son of nobility to the warrior hero of Llanhowell. Well, Thomas thought, that sounded at least entertaining.
Before he could turn the first page, though, his phone buzzed with a message from Noel: Good morning, beautiful.
It was past two in the afternoon, but Thomas did not see any need to push that point. Awake at last?
Working on it, came Noel’s response. What are you up to today?
Instead of tapping out his whole plan, Thomas clicked over to the emoji keyboard and scrolled through his options. Yellow faces, barnyard animals, holidays — oh, there he was. He clicked on an open book and a cup of tea (it was probably coffee, but he was going to pretend) before pressing ‘send’. A few seconds later, a message arrived from Noel featuring a smiling face with hearts for eyes, and then another with the same face blowing a heart kiss.
And then, after a pause, another message arrived, and this one Thomas had trouble parsing: the same cup of coffee-as-tea Thomas had used, then five pine trees, then a yellow face shedding a single tear. Allergies? No, that hardly explained the beverage. Maybe Noel wanted some coffee of his own, but it was some number of trees away? Or he was sad that Thomas’ book had once been living trees? Neither of those seemed likely. Thomas could understand the parts, but that’s all they were to him. Tea-or-coffee, several evergreens, crying. Thomas’ tea, a forest, and sadness on the other side.
As though by magic, the little pictures stopped being pictures and became a sentence. I miss you too, Thomas replied, and in any language, he meant it.
The look on Áodán’s face is pure, undiluted shock. “Didn’t think you were leaving me behind, were you?” asks Hrothan with a grin, climbing down from his rocky perch.
For a moment, Áodán does not even speak; he moves his mouth as though trying to vocalize, but no sound emerges. At last, with a great angry glare, he drops his pack to the ground and points a knife at Hrothan. “The Lady promises eternal torment to any not of elvish blood who dares to–”
“Who dares to trespass on her land, et cetera, et cetera, I’m sure.” Having no concern that the blade will do him harm, Hrothan lifts Áodán’s pack and slings it over his other shoulder. “And she doesn’t do much better by those who are of elvish blood, judging by how she’s dealt with you, so I’d say I’m at no great disadvantage.”
“Drop it,” demands Áodán, nearing the tip of the knife to Hrothan’s throat.
Hrothan rolls his eyes. “Come on, we’re losing the dayli–”
“I said drop it!” Áodán shouts, almost screeches, his voice a fever pitch. His coal eyes are aflame, and the hand that holds the knife has developed a tremor the likes of which Hrothan has never seen before. This, then, is elvish fury, pure and bright. The tip of the blade skims across the surface of Hrothan’s throat. “You cannot go! You will not go!”
“You will have to kill me to stop me.” Hrothan neither advances nor retreats, holding his place on the road, his grip tight on Áodán’s pack. The drug Áodán slipped into his wine has not yet worked its way out of his system, leaving him a bit more sluggish than normal, but clear. He’s made tougher decisions drunker, and in truth, this really is no decision at all. “And that’d only backfire, because my soul would beat you there. So run me through or leave me be, but either way, I don’t relish trying to find those gates after nightfall.”
Though he takes a step back, Áodán does not let his blade relax. The whites of his eyes are shot through with red; a single tear of anger streaks down his cheek. “Go home, oath-breaker!” spits Áodán, pointing down the path in the direction of town. “Dragon-bitten, flame-stained, thrice-forsaken fool, go home!”
In a moment of dark amusement, Hrothan wonders how Áodán’s heard those tales of him. Perhaps that was what he missed at the tavern, between singing along with the minstrels and passing out face-down on the table. He would be lying if he said the old insults didn’t still sting, and doubly so from Áodán’s lips, but they are not enough to turn him from his goal. He has made his decision, and not even the person he’s made it for will be enough to dissuade him.
“When my sister, she–” Hrothan finds his words catching in his throat, but pushes past the memory to the point of the recollection. “I knew something was wrong, but she did not speak of it, and thus I let the matter pass. And then she was dying, all for not wanting to have troubled me with her burdens. To save me grief, she has given me years of it.”
The raw fury behind Áodán’s expression begins to abate, softening the clench of his teeth and steadying the tremble in his sword-hand. He takes in a deep breath and gives it a slow, even release. “There was nothing you could have–”
“I don’t know that!” shouts Hrothan, despite his best efforts to answer Áodán’s anger with calm. “No, you’re right, there was most likely nothing that I or anyone else could have done, once the seed had begun to sprout. But I would have had time to try, to fail, to discover on my own how powerless I was. And I would not still, a decade later, lie awake at night, staring at the stars and wondering what might have worked!” Tears flow unbidden down his cheeks, their tracks stinging his skin cold in the bitter wind that shakes the bare trees. “I loved Eliðir, and I will love her all my life and beyond. But she is also a weight I will carry with me that same span.”
Frowning in pain, Áodán drops gaze and blade alike, letting both clatter toward the ground. As cautiously as he might approach one of the horses of the Llanhowell wilds, Hrothan steps closer, then closer still — and then his arms are around Áodán’s heavily clothed body, crushing tight, so tight that it is a full moment before he realizes that Áodán has wrapped his around Hrothan’s shoulders with equal intensity. “Let me come with you,” Hrothan pleads, his voice low, his lips as close to Áodán’s ear as he dares get, cautious but unafraid. “Do not make me grow old knowing that here it was I let you go.”
Áodán’s response is a small snort. “As though foolishness would not get to you long before old age does,” he replies, making Hrothan laugh to think what expression must be on his deceptively youthful face. Even through the layers of fabric that separate them, Hrothan can feel in his own chest the pounding of Áodán’s heart.
Thomas had not only anticipated a bit of awkwardness, he’d been so certain of it that he’d actually phoned a local motel to make sure they had rooms available, just in case Noel got all the way there from Boston only to find himself wishing he hadn’t made the trip at all. He didn’t go so far as to book the room, though; he demanded a little more confidence from himself than that.
He needn’t have worried, though — the moment his sweating hands pulled open his front door, he saw Noel’s excited grin and felt it mirroring his own. “Hello,” he said, trying for a level of cool he was certain he’d utterly failed to achieve.
“Hi,” said Noel, stepping in as Thomas stepped back. He had a backpack slung over one shoulder, which combined with his t-shirt and loose scarf to make him look even younger than he had during their first meeting. Safely inside, he ran his fingers through his hair, shaking off the evening drizzle; the spring had exchanged its earlier chill for nigh-constant rain, which Thomas hardly thought was a fair trade. “This is a cute house.”
“Thank you.” Thomas shrugged as he glanced around his tiny living room. “I’ve done some work on it, as it’s rather old, and I–”
His babbling about his various interior design choices was cut short, though, as Noel stepped close and brushed the backs of his knuckles against Thomas’ beard. “But you’re cuter,” he said, leaning in for a kiss. Helpless against such an approach, Thomas melted into the embrace, cupping the sides of Noel’s scruffy cheeks in his hands. No, he had to admit with quiet excitement, Noel wasn’t going to be staying anywhere else tonight. A swooning rush of delight bubbled up from his stomach like champagne, making him dizzy as though he were drunk.
It was a rush, however, that was halted in its tracks by the sound of the oven timer. “Oh,” said Thomas, turning his head toward the kitchen, “that’s dinner.”
Noel released him, but caught hold of Thomas’ hand, letting Thomas lead him into the kitchen. It was as small and old as anything else about the house, and Thomas didn’t make very frequent use of anything more than its stove and refrigerator, particularly since he could eat on campus as it suited him. But a home-cooked meal had seemed appropriate for a second date, so Thomas had spared no expense … and bought ready-to-bake entree and sides at the local organic market, daunted by the twin prospects of following an impressive recipe and accommodating Noel’s vegetarianism, no matter how loosely he might hold to the principle. The thought, he hoped, was what counted.
And it was odd to think of this as their second date, since Thomas associated second dates with continued getting-to-know-you conversations, ones which covered the demographic and biographic information that had been missed or glossed over during the first date. But between their first encounter and this, Noel’s second trip, they’d had three weeks of texts, emails, telephone calls, and even one Skype conversation that had just made Thomas self-conscious about how silly he felt he must look on camera. The truth was, he often felt silly in comparison to Noel, who seemed to ooze grace and charm without even trying.
Yet Noel not only had kept up their various forms of communication with no sense that he felt obligated to do so, but he’d been the one who’d nudge-nudge suggested that he might have the need to make another research trip out Thomas’ way very soon. And when Thomas had brought up the vague, obligation-less fact that Noel would be welcome to stay with him, Noel had texted back I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK. Thomas didn’t know quite what the capital letters meant, but from context clues he suspected enthusiasm.
“Smells good,” said Noel as they stopped in front of the oven; he stood behind Thomas, his arms around Thomas’ waist. “What is it?”
“Soy Chicken … Kiev?” Thomas frowned as he flipped over the package, squinting at the market label. “Kiev. Chicken Kiev, but soy. So not really chicken at all. And now my secret is out, I confess that I have no idea about the taste, and prepared it only as far as unwrapping and popping in the oven.”
Noel kissed him on the curve of his jaw, just in front of his ear, before stepping back. “Well, I know better than to interfere when a man’s working hard in the kitchen.”
“Hardly working, more like,” said Thomas, who was gratified when Noel smiled at the dumb wordplay. He pointed to the kitchen’s other door, on the other side of which lay the formal dining room, the house’s largest room; truly, the place had been built for someone far more social than he. “If you want, just on through there’s some wine, if you could pick a bottle you’d like with the meal. After all, I trust your good judgment.” He popped open the oven and poked the ersatz chicken with a fork, hoping he hadn’t done too ill by it. “And I’ll just be a moment more here, I think. Maybe. I hope.”
“I’d love to.” With a wink, Noel stepped out of sight around the corner.
Preparations wound up taking longer than Thomas had anticipated, in part because the rolls had gone on past golden brown, and he wound up having to scrape burned bits off the bottom before tumbling a few into a mixing bowl with a clean dish towel that he could pretend was a bread basket. Green beans and potatoes joined the soy entrees on plates, though every attempt at artful arrangement only made him feel worse about the overall effect. Not for the first time in his life, he cursed the decisions that had led him to the point in his life where he had no practical skills that would help him survive in the wild, much less through a date. Just be yourself, all the advice columns from the gay dating websites (which he absolutely had not browsed on the college internet) told him. He hoped by now that Noel didn’t mind a self whose culinary skills left much to be desired.
Home-cooked, he reminded himself as he looked over the plates. Not restaurant-grade. Not for an epicurean publication. Not to be judged by a food critic. If it looked a bit messy, well, that only showed how much effort had gone into it, didn’t it? It had to. He needed it to.
So focused was Thomas on not tripping over his own feet or spilling anything off the sides of the plates that he kept his head bowed all the way into the dining room, until well after he’d set the plates down on the table and stepped back with them still upright. In fact, this was a bit of fortuitous concentration, because if he’d looked up while he was walking in, he surely would have dropped the plates right then and there, and dinner would have been ruined.
As it was, he had nothing in his hands when he had his heart attack. The formal dining room was a large room indeed, and lined with bookshelves built straight into the walls, which Thomas had stacked side to side with volumes photogenic enough to impress his infrequent guests, yet not so vital to his work that he needed them in his office. European literature and commentaries in several languages were arranged there by a system Thomas pretended he’d devised carefully, when really, he was more likely to stick a new volume in a convenient place and hope he’d never have immediate need of it again. It was, as one of his colleagues had once said, exactly the sort of home decor one expected from a person such as Thomas, and Thomas had taken that compliment in the spirit in which it had been intended.
One book, however, did not belong; in fact, it not only predated Thomas’ inhabiting the house, it was not even a book at all. So of course it had been the one Noel had found.
“This is an amazing thing,” said Noel brightly, peeking out from behind the movable bookshelf. “I’ve got to get me one.” The fake copy of Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus (far too old for Thomas’ periods of interest, and with a spine too thick for its purported contents besides) stuck out from the shelf, half-pulled in the way that had released the locking mechanism. The shelves before it had been swung out like a door, revealing a nook behind large enough to fit a crouching person — or, as Thomas had placed boards and bricks in there, books stacked three deep in places.
Thomas gripped the back of one of the dining room chairs; he felt as though he might be sick to his stomach right on his rug. Should he try to lie? Oh, those? They were there when I bought the house, silly old things, never read them myself. He imagined that would sound about as ridiculous aloud as it did in his head, and anyway, Noel had the newest Juno Urquhart novel, The Exile’s Tale, caught between two long fingers. “Hrothan or Áodán?” asked Noel, his mouth lifted in a cheeky grin.
In no universe did Thomas know how even to begin to answer that question. Perhaps his brain had decided to have a stroke and kill him instead of leaving him to suffer the inevitable humiliation. “P-pardon?” he managed; his throat was so dry he felt as though he were speaking through sand.
“You seem like an Áodán type. You’ve got that sort of–” Noel made a few aimless gestures around his face, which helped explain nothing. “That brooding intensity. Do you think it was too subtle, that they were romantically involved by the end?”
Perhaps he was going mad. It seemed to happen often to fictional English professors; he supposed life had ways of imitating art. “Ah?” said Thomas, ever-eloquently.
“Oh, really? Damn, it should have been clearer. You should have seen me agonizing over how explicit to make it. I’ve even got the filthy scenes I left out; I can send them to you.” With a grin, Noel flipped to the blank pages at the back. “Well, there’s always the next one.”
“What–” There were two glasses of white wine already poured, resting atop the table, and Thomas grabbed one and drank it dry without even tasting it. “What are you saying?”
Noel waved the book a little, making the twin scepters depicted on its cover sway, and when Thomas didn’t reply, Noel reached for the two prequels. “You didn’t get these because of me?”
The wine hadn’t made the world make any more sense. Thomas shook his head.
“I just figured you’d talked to someone and gotten back to my publisher or something. It’s not a secret secret, it’s just … you know, keeping one life separate from the other, just in case I have to appear respectable somewhere.” Noel glanced at Thomas’ paperback collection. “Plus, it’s easier to get gay stuff out there as a straight woman than a gay man. Which is weird, I know, but that’s the business for you.” With a sheepish little laugh, Noel stacked the volumes on the nearest corner of the table. “So, um, did you — and you can be totally honest here, I swear — did you at least like them?”
“I … couldn’t put them down.” His absolute befuddlement over the situation had left Thomas with nothing but the truth.
The smile on Noah’s face could have outshone suns. “Really?” he asked, the word not unlike a squeak. He looked barely older than Thomas’ undergraduates there: a boy, thrilled about having impressed someone worth impressing. He hugged the volumes to his chest the way a child might embrace a stuffed toy. “And you’re really not just saying that?”
Of course Thomas wasn’t just saying that; he’d read them each at least three times, and studied all appendices front to back. He’d caught himself staring out many a window while pondering the descriptions of Hrothan’s strong jaw, his broad shoulders, his work-worn hands. He’d even entertained half-formed fantasies about Áodán and elvish courting rituals, even though he’d had no idea that had at all been the author’s intention with the relationship. The author was, in fact, right here, and had kissed him in the living room, and was going to eat dinner with him very soon. Everything was all right.
Which was why it was pure madness that he couldn’t stop shaking or force his fingers to unclench from where they’d gripped the chair back so hard, he was certain he’d leave marks in the wood. He thought of Albert, and the sneering disgust on his perfect Eton face as he’d pulled The Mists of Avalon — one of the more respectable volumes Thomas owned! — from Thomas’ bedside table. Aren’t such things beneath you? he’d asked, and how soon after the others in their year hadn’t been able to stop making quips about how odd it was Thomas was able to get anything done at all, with all the trash filling his mind. And then there’d been the conferences during which the “popular literature” sessions had been treated as a joke, and the keynote speakers who’d implied that reading anything later than Shakespeare was just a waste of time, and the faculty meetings where they’d all had a good laugh about some misguided undergraduate bound and determined to write a thesis on some mass-market trash. It wasn’t anything; it was everything.
“Hey,” said Noel, his bright expression clouding over, “are you oka–” A thought caught him mid-word, and he looked back toward the hidden bookshelf, as though finally understanding the hidden part of it. “I wasn’t supposed to find this, was I?”
His heart still caught in his throat, Thomas shook his head.
Noel nodded, staring at the shelves of paperbacks, some in near-mint condition, some with spines broken a half-dozen times over with loving re-reads. “Yeah, my dad was awful about my reading habits too.” He walked his long fingers from book to book, tracing their covers with obvious fondness. “Of course, all he ever read was the Bible and The Wall Street Journal. And I tell you what, the bustling cultural life of Enid, Oklahoma doesn’t prepare people for what happens when their only son comes home telling his parents that when he grows up, he wants to be a poet. The gay thing, they’ve come to terms with, but I don’t know if they’ve ever wrapped their brains all the way around that.”
Thomas cleared his throat; metered verse and disappointing parents were two slightly more familiar grounds. “You write poetry too?”
“God, no.” Noel laughed as he turned back to Thomas. “I mean, I did. When I was sixteen or so. You remember the awful bard in the first book? Yeah, those were my honest best attempts from my youth, with slightly more ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ for flavor.”
Indeed, Thomas remembered the bard, though he would have sworn that overblown doggerel had been no one’s best attempt at anything. “But you do … do books.”
“Yep. And scholarly work, I mean, but you know it doesn’t pay. And neither does fiction. But you put the two together and I make just enough to take the occasional really cute professor to dinner.” Noel winked at him, then stood and walked around the table, easing Thomas’ hands away from his makeshift grasping-post and wrapping his own fingers around them. “I know this sounds entirely hypocritical from the man with the lady’s pseudonym, and maybe way vain considering it’s my books we’re talking about, but you don’t have to hide what you like. At least, not to impress me.”
Thomas turned his palms so his fingers interlaced with Noel’s, even though his hands had gone icy and sweaty at once with terror. “I just,” Thomas began, and then he stopped with a swallow, not even knowing what he just, or what he did at all.
Noel squeezed his hands. “Got teased?”
“To … put it mildly.”
“Yeah,” said Noel, and even that single syllable conveyed a wealth of understanding. He brought Thomas’ hands up to his lips and kissed his bony knuckles. “Hey, at least we have the same taste in junk food literature, right?”
The phrasing surprised Thomas into a laugh, which was an even more pleasant surprise, considering he had assumed his face might be frozen in that rictus of terror for the rest of his days. In fact, all the muscles in his body were starting to relax, leaving him feel as tired as if he’d just run a marathon. “I, ah.” He glanced down. “Might we sit?”
“Oh, sure, sure,” said Noel, letting go of Thomas’ hands only long enough to pull his chair out in a gentlemanly fashion; after he’d taken the closest other chair, he grasped them again, rubbing his strong, knobby thumbs in comforting circles. “I’m sorry about that, if I’d had any idea, I would never have–”
“No, no.” Thomas shook his head, then took a deep breath, composing his next sentence as he exhaled. “I once was … I was seeing a man who accused me of being addicted to pornography.”
Noel chuckled. “And what did you say?”
“I said … yes,” Thomas admitted, which made Noel laugh again, though there was no cruelty in the sound. “I did! And I was so shocked with myself after, thinking, was it really better to let him believe that about me? But I’d met him through a professional organization, and I thought, well, that at least might be a rumor he’d be disinclined to spread. Best to have one man quietly sure I’m perverse than let my peers write me off for the rest of my career as unserious.”
“Pretentious assholes,” said Noel, rolling his eyes. “And I’m a pretentious asshole, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Unable to stop smiling now, Thomas squeezed Noel’s hands. “You’re not. You’re … you’re wonderful. And a fabulous writer. You really are. And handsome,” he added, figuring that so long as he was on a roll, he ought not stop. “And I’m … not sure why you’re still here, honestly, but I’m thrilled you are.”
Noel leaned across the table to kiss him then, a brief gesture that was more a mashing of noses than anything else, but that was honest, and honesty was just something Thomas was going to have to try. After a fleeting moment of content, Noel pulled back and sat down. “Well, fuck it, I don’t want to ruin our dinner date any more by thinking of them.” He unfolded his napkin onto his lap with comically grand flourish, then reached for the bottle to fill Thomas’ glass again. “So, you still want me to send you those deleted scenes?”
Thomas felt a furnace-hot flush rise into his cheeks, but he managed a nod. “If they’re anything like your other works, I assume they’re worth a read.”
“Oh, are they ever, if I do say so myself.” Noel picked up his utensils and started cutting into his chicken-esque loaf, speaking all the while as casually as though they were discussing Chaucer or the drive from Boston or anything except the very subject that consumed much of Thomas’ inner life. “Bits of Hrothan taking himself in hand, dreaming of a touch he thinks he’ll never be able to have, while of course Áodán is just on the other side of the fire, his gloves discarded beside him, wanting the same….”
“God,” Thomas whispered, bypassing the food for another swallow of wine.
“And when the curse is broken…”
“Do they ever.” Noel laughed as casually as ever, though now Thomas could see a bit of those fair southern cheeks starting to pinken. “And — well, I suppose I should ask you first. Who’d you think tops?”
“Hrothan,” answered Thomas without a moment’s hesitation. It was so strange to be able to talk about these things, and yet at once so liberating that the words just rushed out of Thomas’ mouth. “Áodán’s not … well, he obviously is tired of being in control. He’s so tightly wound, and maybe he can’t admit to himself that what he wants is to unwind. So he needs someone … someone he trusts to take that burden of control from him.”
Noel winked at Thomas, who felt a giddy rush he couldn’t wholly blame on the alcohol. “Professor, I have to say, I like the way you think.”
“Mortals,” she says, though the word from her lips might as well be the foulest insult invented. “To be born with a sun’s rise and never live to see its setting. This is not a tragedy; this is inconsequence.”
Hrothan cannot answer her; the blood that gushes from his opened wrists saps strength from him with every heart-pushed pulse. From somewhere — though now it seems at such a great distance, and greater with every breath — Áodán calls from him, screams for him, and Hrothan wants to tell him not to worry, that everything will be all right. But he can’t, and it won’t.
Her long grey robe drags the floor behind her as she walks, and as she nears him, its edge brushes against his pooled blood. If she notices, she pays the mess no mind. “But what is death, here?” she asks, resting her hands on her hugely pregnant belly, inside which grows that which will never be born. The pain is excruciating; Hrothan feels like a wineskin drained dry, then sucked at by a sot for some last hidden drops. His pulse thrums like lazy hammer strikes in his lips and fingertips as her tiny bare feet step in slow time with it. “In a land without release?”
Hrothan lifts his head from the ground to look at her, feeling the blood drip from his beard. Surely he has no more in him, and yet it still flows, spreading out across the grey stone floor. His entire being is focused down to the twin points of pain and hatred, making more complex thought difficult.
But he has to admit, she has a point.
He tries at first to convince himself that the pain is not real, but it is very real, as real as the flames that blackened his back and arm. Odd though it seems, the memory of the fire is almost comforting in its nostalgia. He remembers that pain too, and the delirious agony of the fever that came after, and the ripping of his heart as he shut his father’s eyes for a final time, and the nigh-unbearable ache of loneliness that kept him panicked and awake his long first night on the road alone. He thinks also of stubbing his toe against a raised cobblestone, of seeing the object of his affection in the arms of another, of the gnawing of an empty stomach. They have all come to him before this, and he has survived them all. Why not this?
The floor is slick and wet, but he places his palms against it and presses them to the stone until he is certain they have purchase. His knees come next, finding him on all fours like an infant. How much pain must he have endured as a babe, that he cannot even remember now? His breath shudders out of his lungs, wrenching his muscles, so he opts to cease breathing. It is an act of will, to overcome such lifelong reflexes, but after a moment he begins to feel better.
The Great Lady has stepped back now, her childlike frame made even smaller by her proximity to her own massive throne. Hrothan’s vision has gone all too soft to see the expression on her face, but her body language reads discomfort, even uncertainty. Good; that means he was right.
Áodán is still shouting, and Hrothan almost grins as he rolls his eyes. Of course Áodán is shouting. His state of vexation is a near-constant one. If it’s not a death-curse, it’s an overdone stew or a mid-afternoon squall. Hrothan pushes himself upward so he can begin to get his feet planted beneath him, moving his way inch by agonizing inch toward standing. Áodán doesn’t usually make such a fuss about his displeasure, but Hrothan supposes these are special circumstances. He nearly topples as he finds his way into a low crouch, then wills his knees to straighten. It is a long, laborious process, and he’s sure he looks like a bloody fright doing it, but vanity can wait.
The thongs that bind Áodán to the pillar are knotted across his bare skin, and if Hrothan had the strength, he would laugh to think that might once have given him pause. One foot in front of the other, he lurches like some wretched ghoul across the chamber, his weakened state threatening to pitch him over at any moment. At first he ignores the crowd, but as he nears, he glances toward them and draws strength from their horrified expressions. He regrets only that he lacks the wherewithal to tell them this probably isn’t the most unsightly he’s ever conducted himself in a public place.
What is death, here? Nothing. Hrothan falls forward against Áodán’s body, his palms landing against Áodán’s bare chest — and oh, if he thought he knew pain before, he had no idea. He feels as one does when stepping outside on a particularly bitter morning, only many thousand times worse, as though some greater, deeper cold has conspired to leech the heat from his body. Letting slip a cry, he slumps forward against Áodán, who is now crying out again as he struggles against his fetters, which dig deep into his skin. Such efforts are only good as distraction, though, so Hrothan lifts a hand and presses his fingers across Áodán’s lips, bidding him be silent. He can apologize later for their bloody state, if there is indeed a later for apologies.
That settled, there is only one step left in the process. His hands are all but palsied into talons with agony, but he concentrates, and slowly, they relax. The dark leather looks to have dried and shriveled, making Hrothan wish not for the first time that he still had on him anything approaching a sharp blade. Knots will require more time, though that doesn’t bother Hrothan. Time is something he has; indeed, it is all he has. But it is enough.
“What do you think you are doing?” asks the Lady from behind him, her bell-like voice echoing through the high ceilings of the hall.
Though it takes every ounce of willpower he has, Hrothan draws a breath into empty lungs. “Taking him home,” he answers, and though the words are little more than a heavy breath, he has no doubt she has heard him clear.
He’d not had many lovers over the years he’d lived in that house, but he’d had enough that sex in his bedroom (and even in several of the non-bedroom rooms of the house) was not an unheard-of occurrence. But what Thomas had never had before was a man willing to use his few inches of height advantage to push Thomas up against the wall, his wrists clasped over his head and a knee between his thighs. Thomas had also, to his recollection, never been so hard before in all his life.
“I’ve been waiting to touch you like this,” Noel purred, his lips right against Thomas’ ear, in a perfect accent not unlike Thomas’ own — and Thomas’ breath caught to realize that he was hearing Noel, but not only Noel. “You’ve no idea how long I’ve been looking at you, watching you, wanting you.”
Standing was becoming difficult, to the point where Thomas was certain that had Noel not been holding him upright, he might have toppled over right then and there. “I,” he began, before pausing and realizing that though he could tell from structure and phonology that the elvish language had at least started its life as Early Modern Irish, he had no idea what that meant an elvish accent sounded like. Well, he supposed a little inauthenticity was understandable given the circumstances, and they could parse it all out later. Now, there were more important things to attend to. “I won’t be flattered, sellsword.”
The laugh that rose from Noel’s lips was musical, angelic, full of delight. “You call truth flattery?” he asked, kissing down the curve of Thomas’ neck. Many of their clothes had been lost along the path from the dining room, up the stairs, and down the hall to the master bedroom; Thomas was bare from the waist up, and Noel from the waist down. “Tell me you haven’t wanted me just the same, and on my honor, I will let you go.”
Thomas certainly didn’t want that, and it took little insight into the character to know Áodán wouldn’t either. “You talk too much,” he answered, and Noel laughed again before kissing what would surely be a lasting red mark into the skin over Thomas’ collarbone. It would be more than hidden by the clothes Thomas wore to teach, but that was thrilling too, to think of being in front of a group of students with no idea what marks of his lay beneath.
Along the way from the hall to the bed itself, Thomas was divested of his own pants, and Noel of his shirt, until they both could embrace bare, skin to skin from head to toe. Perhaps Thomas hadn’t spent Áodán’s seven hundred lunar cycles without knowing the touch of another, but he understood being that starved for contact, that certain that the whole rest of his life would be nothing but loneliness. That someone his intellectual equal might tolerate his tastes had been the most Thomas had ever assumed he might hope for; that someone would indulge them was … well, magical.
When they came down upon the bed together, Thomas was beneath Noel as they had been in the hotel room, but this time it was different — this time, Noel was actually on top, taking charge in a way that made Thomas swoon. It had been embarrassing at first to think, and more so to admit aloud, but Thomas did understand . Control had knotted him tight as well, but beneath a trusted lover, he could learn to let go.
After several minutes of just kissing and pressing against one another, Noel leaned back on his knees and glanced around the unfamiliar bedroom. Thomas had made a very hopeful set of drugstore purchases earlier, though, and both the box of condoms and bottle of lubricant were in full display on the bedside table. Noel looked at them, then back at Thomas with a questioning eyebrow raised, and Thomas nodded. He might not have been removing any gloves or staring longingly across any campfires, but he certainly had been thinking of this.
Noel made short work of getting ready as Thomas watched, his thighs spread in eager expectation. But Noel had never seemed to rush things before, and by all appearances he wasn’t starting now. Instead, he teased one lube-slick finger against the inside of Thomas’ thigh, laughing at Thomas squirmed under the chilly touch. “So thoughtful of you to visit the apothecary,” Noel said with a grin.
Thomas shrugged, feigning nonchalance as best he could with his own cock standing stiff over his belly. “Isn’t the motto of the Tham y Rúl ‘Be Prepared’, after all?”
His fingers perched just at the cleft of Thomas’ ass, Noel looked up and frowned. “You think Áodán used to be part of the Tham y Rúl?” asked Noel, sounding more like himself again.
“How else did he get the location of the Deathless Lands?” asked Thomas, propping himself up a bit on his elbows. “It was either that or priesthood training, and I thought his being former secret police was more plausible.”
“That’s a good point.” Noel gave a thoughtful nod. “That’s … a really good point, actually. And it really explains his reaction to Laighdha.”
“It’s one thing to be a distasteful person, but another to make a mess of an honorable position.”
“God, you are amazing,” said Noel, and before Thomas could contradict him appropriately, Noel was on him again, kissing him deep as he pressed fingers inside Thomas. Thomas gasped and squirmed, but Noel held him down and swallowed the sound before sucking on Thomas’ lower lip. Thomas gave into the need for touch and ground his hips against Noel, fucking himself on Noel’s fingers. He could be greedy like this, because his lover had given him permission and would make sure he stayed safe.
Letting his mind wander during sex had been a bit of a problem for Thomas his whole life, particularly in cases where his partner had been well-intentioned yet lacking in some vital point of interest; suffice it to say, it wasn’t the first time in his life he’d had someone’s digits up his fundament while he quietly thought of elves. This was, however, the first time in his life he was certain his partner would not only have approved of, but encouraged such thinking, understanding that it meant no disrespect to the reality of the situation. Sometimes separate desires still intersected, and the ability to act on both at once was a heady prospect indeed.
It wasn’t long before Noel’s fingers withdrew, making Thomas shiver with what he knew was coming next. He looked up, cupping Noel’s cheek in his palm while giving the sultriest elvish expression he could manage. “B’maithil siom bhithigh éal,” he said, hoping his pronunciation was close to what Noel had intended.
From the way Noel’s eyes went wide, it seemed he’d been correct — more than correct, even, as Noel drew in a sharp breath, then complied and pushed his cock inside Thomas in one long, slow thrust. Thomas held his breath against the flood of sensation, his hands clenched tight around Noel’s upper arms. As Noel pushed in deeper, his belly rubbed against the tip of Thomas’ erection, causing Thomas to shiver.
There was no talk left in any language for them after that, it seemed, as their collected sounds were reduced to a duet of heavy, needful breaths. At first, Thomas found himself searching uncertainly, as though there were something in this process he should be expected to do — but no, there was nothing demanded of him now except to lie and feel pleasure. He’d been fucked like this so few times in his life, as those around him tended to interpret his quiet, stoic demeanor as impenetrable on every level. No wonder he’d been so taken with Áodán — or that he and Áodán had been so taken with Noel and Hrothan, respectively. After years, decades, centuries of carefully maintained control, it felt good to have someone else regard emotional walls that seemed permanent and break on through as though they weren’t even there at all.
Thomas heard a sound with every thrust, a heavy gasp so foreign to his ears he wondered if Noel might be making it. But when Noel bent down to give Thomas’ lips a brief kiss, the noise stopped — and Thomas realized that he had been the one vocalizing his pleasure. He’d never done that before; he’d never even known he’d been capable of such a response. It certainly wasn’t proper, and it was frankly vulgar. But he was being fucked now, after all, and fucked so well that perhaps it was worth an enthusiastic response. As an experiment, he let his breath come louder, and thus was gratified when Noel responded in kind, moving harder and faster in him. Never one to let his control slip, Thomas now found himself wondering what it would be like if he could stop being so self-conscious and just wholly give in. It was a lofty goal, of course, and one he didn’t expect to reach anytime soon, but it sounded appealing as it never had before, and that was no small thing.
Noel was no small thing either, not his body or his cock or the way he’d barged into Thomas’ heart. For this moment, he was Thomas’ whole world, inside and out, and Thomas could have asked for nothing better. Bracing himself on one elbow, Noel reached between them to grab Thomas’ cock, and some few short strokes later, Thomas was coming all over his belly and chest. He was making noises, too, and he would have assumed they sounded utterly ridiculous, had the look of hunger on Noel’s face not become that much more keen.
Only moments later, as Thomas’ body relaxed, Noel shifted his weight back and grabbed Thomas’ hips, then proceeded to thrust into him with a force Thomas could feel all the way to the tips of his toes. Spent as he was, Thomas could only pull together enough strength in one arm, and that only to place his palm against Noel’s chest, just over his heart. Noel smiled, sweat making his hair stick to his forehead, then shut his eyes and gasped wordlessly as he came inside Thomas, hard and deep.
And then he collapsed forward with an ungainly flop, half onto Thomas, half onto the bed beside him. With a laugh bubbling up from the delight of release, Thomas took Noel’s face in his hands and kissed him, first on the tip of his nose, then lightly on his lips, then deeper, letting his tongue work its way into Noel’s mouth to show his appreciation for everything.
Noel smiled as he kissed back, tracing circles with his fingertips against Thomas’ hip. He paused after a few moments, though, his body stilling, and when Thomas pulled back, he saw a curious expression on Noel’s face. “How are you conjugating b’maithil there?”
“First person active present,” answered Thomas, thinking back to the grammar charts he’d seen at the back of Sword-Bonded; he hadn’t seen anything there about irregular verbs, though something as common and basic as ‘want’ ran the risk of being one very easily. “Extrapolating from cannithil, I go, and cannith, you go. With the second person singular, but without the polite prefix, so I suppose I thought that’d make the wanting of that ‘you’ a bit … cruder, perhaps. Considering the, well.” Thomas gestured to their naked, twined, come-splattered bodies. “The context.”
“Yeah, that … that was pretty effective.” Noel laughed and kissed the tip of Thomas’ nose, then sat up to deal with the used condom and general cleanup. “And I like that as sort of a weird elvish euphemism for sex.”
Thomas rolled onto his side and took the washcloth Noel snatched from the adjacent bathroom, then began to clean himself with as much dignity as the situation could afford him. “There aren’t a lot of examples of prepositions given in general, and all one-thing-inside-another ones have to do with sacred items inside buildings, so I improvised.”
“But you didn’t just think that up,” said Noel, climbing back into the bed and curling up beside Thomas.
“It’s, ah.” Thomas didn’t know why this seemed so embarrassing now, after everything else, but he couldn’t quite stop being bashful about it. “It’s how Áodán should have answered Hrothan, there at the end.”
There might one day become a point where Thomas stopped being delighted by the look of wonderment on Noel’s face every time Thomas played along into his fantasy universe, but oh, he was miles from there now. “Amazing,” he said, poking Thomas in the chest to indicate what noun belonged to that adjective. “I hadn’t thought of an answer, not a real one, but you’re right, it is what he wants to do now.”
Thomas grabbed the edge of the comforter and pulled it over both of them, settling down into the sheets; he was still sweaty and warm now, but he knew how easily his old house could take on a chill. Besides, this time, neither he nor Noel was going anywhere. “So … do they live happily ever after?” he asked, pillowing his head on Noel’s shoulder.
Noel made a thoughtful sound. “That all depends.”
“Depends on what?”
“On whether or not you agree to help me write the next one.”
Thomas answered by way of laughing and turning his face upward to kiss Noel good and proper. His head was already full of ideas, dreams of futures both fictional and real, all equally epic and impossibly, wonderfully bright.
He raises his fingers against the dawn, blocking the sunlight, real light, from tender eyes. There is a soreness in his limbs that lingers, and he imagines it will for some time; the Lady took her pound of flesh, after all, and then some. But already the day has begun to chase the grave-chill from his bones, and that is a welcome development.
A hand comes to rest against his shoulder, bare skin against bare skin at the edge of his torn sleeve, and Hrothan smiles. “Is it not beautiful?” he asks, nodding toward the east.
Áodán sighs, but from the corner of his eye, Hrothan can see a weary smile turn his lips. “I have never understood your people’s fondness for daylight,” Áodán says, his voice still ragged and dry, but steadier now than it had been at the peak of the Great Lady’s so-called hospitality. “It’s hot and makes subterfuge difficult.”
Hrothan sighs and drapes a heavy arm over Áodán’s shoulder, pulling him close. They stand beside one another like that as the sun’s rays creep over the treetops, dissolving the gates behind them into memory. If life is good, Hrothan thinks, neither he nor Áodán will ever have reason to seek them out again, nor will the nightmares dwelling behind them ever have cause to venture forth on their account. But for Áodán, he would do it again. Not every traveling companion is worth coming back from death for, after all.
His fingers brush against Áodán’s hair; perhaps he will grow it out now, or perhaps he has learned to like himself better this way. Elves are an unpredictable sort, he’s always been told, with no discernable reason to their actions and desires. Whether he’s found a particularly unusual elf, or whether he’s merely capricious in the same way as they, Hrothan cannot say. But few could deny now that they make a fine pair.
“Tór b’maith thléa dhéallimh?” asks Hrothan, his voice low and soft against the morning air.
Áodán lets out a disgusted sigh and pushes away from Hrothan, staggering forward down the path, his good arm braced against the makeshift walking-stick. “Your accent is atrocious,” he says over his shoulder. “I have no idea at all what you’re saying.”
And to that, Hrothan can only laugh, sending deep, bellowing gales of it into the morning air. It hurts his whole chest and belly to laugh, but it feels so good that stopping does not even cross his mind. If he hurts, after all, he’s alive, and right now that’s exactly what he wants to be. Gathering his bag up over his shoulder, he steadies his sword at his hip, then steps forth, following right behind Áodán into the new day.
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