by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
It wasn’t until he had time to sit and stare into the dying fire long past the early winter sunset that Fen realized how alone he was.
He could feel the emptiness of the smaller room upstairs as if it were chaff weighing down a sack. His breathing was louder than the whispers of the embers. Not a sound came from outside, not wind, not shuffling or snuffling from the barn. He could have been the only living thing in creation.
The boy had left today, off to seek his fortune. Lately Fen had wondered whether he himself had put the idea into the boy’s head, telling him all the tales he could remember or invent, painting him cities and seas and mountains beyond their few hilly fields, trying to give him the whole world as if it could make up for his mam dying in the birthing of him. But no, the boy had always been that way, toddling off to get into things he shouldn’t as young as he’d been able. It was a gift that he’d stayed this long. Fen might have been able to persuade him to stay longer still, pinning him down with obligation, but eventually that would have broken both their hearts.
Life’ll knock the corners off you soon enough, Fen’s own da had told him more than once when Fen had gotten himself twisted up over something that no one else understood to matter. But this evening Fen felt as though he had no substance at all, a splintered rail from an abandoned fence, silvering into rot in the uncaring rain.
The tap on the door was soft. The hinges creaked a little. Fen followed Will’s footsteps without turning his head, until Will’s hand landed lightly on his shoulder.
“Herself sent you some supper.” Will set something on the table, and the scent of meat and spices wafted to Fen. One of Will’s wife’s fabled pies, no doubt. Fen had had a few mouthfuls of bread and cheese earlier, though he’d had no stomach for the meal. The pie would keep well enough on the windowsill until tomorrow.
“Please thank her for me,” he said.
“She worries.” Will rounded Fen’s chair and drew up the small stool from the corner of the room. He sat and took one of Fen’s hands in his own winter-dry one. “How are you feeling?”
Fen let out a sigh that seemed to take every stick of his defenses with it. He slouched further into his chair. “Old,” he admitted. “Old.”
“He’s a good lad,” Will said. “Strong, and sensible, and kind. He’ll be fine.”
“I know.” How could Fen describe it, this feeling of everything falling from his futilely grasping hands? He was ashamed to say But it’s myself I’m thinking of, even to the man who knew him best in this world.
Will reached up with his spare hand to smooth Fen’s thinning hair. “I told her I might stay the night.”
Fen leaned into the touch. Gratitude prickled within him, painful as blood returning to a stiff limb. “I wish you would,” he said, voice catching.
Will squeezed Fen’s hand, gentle in mindfulness of joints that pained him after a day’s work, then released it and stood up. He took a spill from the mantel and lit the two candles on the table. Then he took the copper bed warmer from where it hung on a nail. He raked scarlet embers from the fire and scooped them into the pan.
“Why don’t you try to have a bite before bed,” he said, and trod up the corner stairs.
Fen unwrapped the linen cloth from around the pie. The pastry was tall and golden, still faintly warm. He’d no doubt enjoy it more tomorrow. He took it to the windowsill. There, he cupped his hands and looked out. There was no moon showing, but the clouds glowed. The cold of the tiny pane of glass made Fen’s fingers ache. Snow was coming.
The boy had left in good time to reach the closest wayhouse. He’d be snug inside now, making new friends.
Behind him, Will set the bedwarmer safely on the stone hearth and began to bank the fire. Fen hesitated at the unlatched door, then hooked it shut and picked up a candle to follow Will upstairs.
He ignored the dark open door of the smaller bedroom and trailed Will into his own. Candlelight gilded the sloping roof and laid warm shadows across the bed.
“Let me,” Will said. He began to unbutton Fen’s jacket. Fen allowed him to do it, sagging under the half-shamed relief of letting someone else handle a task that seemed too demanding just now.
When Will turned back from tossing the jacket onto the one chair, Fen took the opportunity to kiss him. Nothing passionate, just the comfort of the act, so familiar and intimate, constancy on a night where change was feeling like betrayal. And again after Will unwrapped him from his waistcoat, then his shirt, his trousers, all his daytime husk of wool and linen that armoured him against the cold world.
Will lifted the quilts for Fen to slide between the sheets. They were warm from where Will had stroked them with the copper pan, even down at his toes where the chill could lurk all night.
Will began to undo his own jacket, made from his wife’s homespun, the reinforcing stitches where the cuffs had begun to fray visible even in the soft light.
“Will,” Fen said on impulse. “Let me see.”
Will looked up and shot him a grin, a flash of the boy he’d been, a lifetime ago when they’d been so hungry for each other that they’d often shunned niceties like the removal of clothing. He turned to face Fen, and continued undressing. Not a tease, not a show, just a man unselfconsciously stripping down at the end of the day.
While Fen himself had aged into stoutness—at least in years of plenty—Will had pared down into sinew and bone. He’d been terribly ill a few winters ago, and never gained back all the muscle he’d lost; his hair had grown in frost-white since. But he stood straight, and his fingers were nimble on his buttons.
Will blew out the candles. Fen moved to make space for him, and Will rolled in beside him and gathered Fen into his arms. They lay with the length of their bodies touching, naked skin hot in a different way from coal-filled copper.
Part of Fen would have been content to just sleep like this; his body needed coaxing to acquit itself in bed these days. But a larger part yearned for lovemaking, wanted to chase and capture that pleasure, let it seep some colour into the bleakness of this day.
He found Will’s mouth in the darkness and kissed him again, still not forceful but with clear intent. Will’s hand moved up to the back of Fen’s neck, covering the cold spot that the quilt did not.
Then Will moved down Fen’s neck, licking the spots that were not-quite-ticklish in that shivery way, tracing his collarbone with little kisses. Fen rolled onto his back, making it easier for Will to reach his chest with tongue and lips and the occasional tantalizing but careful edge of teeth.
He cupped Will’s head. Will’s hair was thin and feather-soft now, and short too, so unlike the waist-length chestnut braid that he’d been so vain about in their youth. Fen remembered Will above him with his hair hanging down around them like willow branches, moving in him, Fen wrapping it around his fingers as he came.
Will slipped lower. When he took Fen’s soft cock into his mouth, Fen sighed as if slipping into a bath. He moved his legs apart so Will could cup his stones and stroke the tender skin behind them. Fen laid his spare hand on his own belly as if to hold himself down to earth, and breathed, letting Will’s talented mouth cajole him into hardness.
When he tilted his head he could smell Will’s scent left on the pillow beside him, and suddenly Fen missed him with a cramp of longing. He gathered the hair at the base of Will’s skull and tugged. Will slid up beside him.
“Something else?” he asked, propped on one elbow.
Fen skated a hand down Will’s side and hip. Will hummed as Fen wrapped his hand around his stiff cock. Fen caressed him without any particular goal in mind, thinking. Will bent forward to kiss him again, hips moving forward and back to thrust into the tunnel of Fen’s fingers.
“Turn around,” Fen said. Will did, and Fen pulled him back against his own body. That felt right, comforting and arousing both. He worked his knee between Will’s thighs. The position nestled his cock against Will, not as if to enter him—Fen knew he didn’t have that kind of exertion in him tonight—but with enough leverage to grind with satisfactory pressure against the cushion of his arse.
He reached his arm around Will and found his cock again, ran a fingertip and thumb up and down it. Will huffed out a breath. Fen flattened his hand over Will’s belly and plastered him as close as they could fit together, Will’s hair silken against his nose.
Will made a noise through his teeth. “Pray continue with your earlier train of thought,” he suggested, and wriggled in Fen’s hold.
Fen glided his hand down to the coarse hairs at the base of Will’s cock and then curved his fingers around his prick itself, thumb spiralling around the moist tip. Will thrust into the cup made by Fen’s hand. Fen shifted to maintain contact with his body, and with no more effort than that they fell into a rhythm that felt preordained, as if their lovemaking were as elemental as water or wind, sensation rippling through them in waves.
Then the rhythm broke, Will crying out frantically and arching his back. Time stopped for Fen, as if he were suspended in the starry sky for one crystal second. Then he too soared over the edge, pleasure pulsing through him and plunging him back to earth.
The trembling took a while to subside. Fen let himself be, lying with his arm still draped over Will’s ribs, until Will gave a little groan and a cough. One-handed, Fen shook the pillow on his side of the bed out of its linen case, which he used to wipe himself and Will clean. The weave of the pillow was coarse under his cheek when he lay back down.
Outside, the wind had picked up. He could hear it soughing through the resistance of the tree branches; there would be kindling on the ground tomorrow. Icy snowflakes ticked against the window.
Surely the boy had reached shelter. He’d left right after the morning chores. He’d have had plenty of time.
The straw in the mattress rustled as Will turned over. His arms enveloped Fen. Fen let himself be arranged until his cheek was resting in the hollow of Will’s shoulder.
“I feel like all the flavour’s gone out of things,” Fen said. It was only a little easier to admit here in the dark. “He hasn’t even been away a day and a night.”
“It’s hard,” Will agreed. His children were older than Fen’s boy; the youngest had been out in the world for a decade, seeking a living more promising than a few fields and a milch cow could supply.
Fen’s hand found the scar on Will’s shoulder that had been left when he’d tripped onto a pitchfork one long-ago day. The wound had festered, and it had been months before Will had been able to lift anything with that arm again. “There’s so much to bear. Like—like field boulders piling up on a stone boat. It’s heavy, Will.”
Will’s lips brushed Fen’s temple. “Something important’s changed, and you’re newly grieving, my love. There’s nothing for it but to feel it.”
It was the truth, but Fen’s heart kicked against it anyway.
“No one thinks it a consolation to hear this, and nor did I, but you’ll endure it as you’ve endured everything up to now.” Will’s voice was as soft as a worn blanket. “The sorrow’ll go in its own time, the way the nights shorten after the solstice. The days will get longer, and there’ll still be night, but some of the darkness will lift. You know this, Fen.”
Fen turned his face into Will’s warmth. “You’re right, but just now, I don’t know how to carry this.”
Will tightened his arm around Fen. “If I could take the burden for you, I swear that I would. But the best I can do is help you to lay it down sometimes.”
There was a joke to be made there about their nakedness and their shared bed, but Fen didn’t have the spirit to craft it. “Will you stay with me?” he asked instead.
“You know I will. As long and as often as I can.”
It was as close to a resolution, Fen supposed, as they were going to get in this life.
He lay awake long enough to hear Will start snoring, but awoke at his usual hour to the everyday morning sounds of birds conversing and the cow inquiring as to her breakfast. He and Will had meat pie and hot tea together before Will went out to tend to his own homestead, eating by candlelight because on the shortest day of the year one rose and retired to bed in darkness.
Later, coming back to the empty house from his own barn at sunrise, Fen saw that the snow was hardly an inch deep anywhere, the fields and hills sparkling like a thousand tiny fallen stars under the rose light of the dawn. It turned out to be a fine day for travelling, crisp and clear, and the sun shone in the cloudless sky all the length of it.