by Koizumi Shinme (恋墨新芽)
The wind was a soft sound in his ears, distant but real, and the world existed as a steady rocking. Not the long, low sweeps of a schooner, but the rapid side-to-side sway of a train in good working order running over well-laid track.
It made Lord Cecil ill.
He reached to open a window, struggling against sleep and his own coat before feeling the first brush of fresh air across his grateful skin.
But I did not-
-at which point he woke in truth.
His coat resolved itself into bedclothes, the air to a breeze from his open window, the distant wind to someone whistling in the garden outside, and the swaying sensation? Ah, that would be the laudanum.
Never again, he told himself sternly, and meant it.
The whistling broke off and was followed by a soft “Hullo there. All rested, your sleeping beauty-ship?” From the garden a familiar face slid into the gap between window and sill, followed by a stray branch of primrose.
“Elliot,” said Lord Cecil, with what he thought was admirable restraint, “if by chance I arrive at that window before you have run away, and if I can close either of my hands into a fist, you and I will have a row. A grand one. When it is over, you can apologize for giving me that vile poison that is making my head swell to three times its normal size.”
“So that would be nine times the size of a normal man’s, yes?”
“I do hate you,” Cecil said, with feeling. “I truly do.”
“Come to breakfast,” said Elliot. “Everyone else is asleep.”
“And so should I be.” But he could not deny a direct request. The curse of half-impoverished nobility, perhaps, or just a weakness for the cheeky way Elliot’s nose turned up at the end, which restricted the young poet to three expressions: fey, snobbish, and laughing at you. Cecil could never resist any of them.
“Just as soon as I can climb out of bed,” he promised.
“No, thank you.”
Cecil made it to his feet and into yesterday’s clothes without help, although the window proved difficult until Elliot took him by the elbow and pulled him through top-first. After that, it was just a matter of brushing the soil from his knees and staggering upright in an imitation of someone who rises at such an ungodly hour by choice.
The path down to the village was just beginning to spring up with grasses and cheerful yellow flowers, but it was enough to dampen their trousers and give Elliot that peculiar ambling gate, hands in his pockets, that spoke of a man at home with his neighbors, the natural world, and the idea of sausages at six in the morning.
Cecil thought he might beg off the sausages. Eggs, though – those might help to dim the bright, painful sunshine and settle the green hills into their proper places, moving only so fast as he walked. Swayed. Yes.
“I feel like Icarus,” he complained.
Elliot laughed. “Don’t worry, your lordship. I’ll tip you in the lake if you catch fire.”
“Only if I don’t trip you in first.”
“There’s a stream right here,” said Elliot. “Have at me.”
“Not before breakfast,” Cecil grumbled, and continued his controlled stagger across the old stone bridge, by now half-desperate for a bench to sit on, if not a meal. “You’ll be the death of me.”
Silence, the sort that comes after one has said something inexcusably, deeply horrid, and then Eliot was rolling his shoulders, a duck letting the water sheet off. “Here, give me your arm.”
All the way to the new village inn, Eliot held his elbow with uncharacteristic gentleness, keeping him from going down. All the way, Cecil blinked and squeezed his eyes shut, sick from all sorts of internal motion, only some of it physical.
Elliot got him in through the heavy oak door and set him on a stool well away from the early risers, but still Keaton came over and leaned across the bar in a conspiratorial fashion, giving him the knowing innkeeper eye.
“How goes it up at the coop and barrel?” he asked casually (for that was what they still called Elliot’s house), and Cecil snorted.
“After last night? I believe I am out of favour again.”
Cecil knew he was being baited, but for all that, Keaton was a remarkably circumspect man. “I believe Miss Catherine’s tolerance and her occasional smile are rationed in direct proportion to my willingness to keep her brother out of trouble.” He gestured at Elliot with his chin, then wished he hadn’t.
“Legal, moral, and financial,” he elaborated.
“She fancies your teetotalling character, I’ll wager.” Keaton’s lips were perfectly straight – only his eyes twinkled.
“Possibly she did.”
They shared a companionable, wry silence, men at the whim of women’s unfathomable notions, though Cecil thought Keaton rather overestimated their similarities. For one, despite all rumor and common knowledge, he was not in fact pursuing his school chum’s sister in any romantic capacity. He only wished her good graces to continue so he could live in her house without suffering the sort of indignities his own female
relatives had inflicted on him before he fled to India.
Which is to say, he wanted not to be miserable.
From across the room, Elliot looked up and caught his eyes. Cecil felt something turn over that wasn’t his stomach and smiled weakly. Elliot grinned back.
They left with a basket tucked under Elliot’s arm and a straw hat on each of their heads. “I brought them down yesterday,” Elliot said, which told Cecil exactly how spontaneous their little outing really was.
“You planned this,” he accused. Elliot made no reply.
The sun was less bright, though how that could be when it was only rising higher he had no idea. It simply seemed farther away, and the water of the streams, the dew in the grasses, closer. The lake was closer, too, and coming up quickly. They passed the white-washed stone church and went over another stone bridge, this one far wider than the one near the house, and after that it was a mere hundred paces to the water’s edge, thick with sere and bright-headed flowers, trimmed with birdsong and light splashing off the surface like bright jewels.
As a poet, Elliot was naturally aligned with the weather; he seemed always to match it precisely, to swirl through it as a charming gentleman of wealth might slip through the tides and eddies of high society. Were he a different man, he might have been very dangerous.
As it was, he was merely eccentric. Even now, instead of searching for a well-mown spot to break their fast, he was mucking about in the reeds by the shore, fussing with something Cecil could not see.
“Here,” the poet called. “Lend me your hands.”
He obeyed thoughtlessly, and it was only when he reached the water’s edge that he realized the full horror of Elliot’s plan.
“Hold this,” Elliot commanded, and Cecil’s hands clamped of their own accord upon the gunwales of a tiny wooden rowboat, a flimsy contraption possessed of a single bench, two oars, and little else. Well, now there was something – Elliot and the basket, arriving gingerly over the side and settling, both of them, in the bottom of the boat.
“Give us a push and hop in,” said the madman who once had been Elliot. “Come now, you can’t still be reeling.”
He was. He had a grip like iron on the gunwale in two places, so that if the wood had not been quite so old and well cared for, he would have been digging out splinters for hours. A boat. What had Elliot been thinking?
“‘Tis not the water,” said Elliot, which was plain ridiculous. It was the water, of course it was the water, where did he think Jack had drowned, in the air? And why this little boat should be more than he could handle, when the schooner that had carried him the last stretch home was ever so much closer to what that Navy-mad boy had officered – who knew? But on the schooner he could hide in his cabin and rarely even set foot out on deck, certainly nowhere near the rails.
Cecil made a strangled noise and Elliot reached forward, laying a hand across his white knuckles. “You can,” he said, and “I miss him, too.”
It was this last that won him over. If Elliot could say so, could say it outside a poem with face neither fey nor distant nor bemused, why then, surely Cecil could so much as lift a single leg and slide it over the side, eyes squeezed tight and thumbs still gripping, until Elliot got hold of his middle and pulled him gently the rest of the way.
He was tucked onto the bench, felt it rough behind his knees, and there came a hollow wooden sound as Elliot bumped the bow with an oar, and then they were moving, scraping, coming off the shore and gliding out into a state Cecil had once bloody well enjoyed: fishing.
The best kind of fishing, he had once told Jack and Elliot (long ago, on the banks of a stream far south of here, whose name few remembered or cared), was the kind that used no poles. When a man had a good straw hat, a lunch, bright sun and cool water, he needed no props nor excuses to be content with his life.
His body remembered despite his mind’s rebellion, and against all expectation he began to relax. Elliot knelt by the bow and dipped one oar in repeatedly, pushing them out in a zig-zag pattern until they were close enough to the centre as made no difference. The lake was longer than it was wide, with a peninsula or two jutting haphazardly towards each other but not quite reaching. It was a friendly lake, casual, eccentric; it had no airs to put on.
Elliot dragged the oar back in and settled into the bottom of the boat, legs stretched out and head propped on Cecil’s knee, which was nothing and everything all at once, so that he nearly missed the first murmured words. “Long in silence have I sat, in wooden boat far from the shore…”
Oh. Oh. This was that boat. Like any good friend, Cecil had slavishly gathered copies of every magazine, every gazette, every small bound book of verse, some familiar to him from school days, most new, and he had told himself sternly that he was not checking up on Elliot through poetry, because the post would have done just as well. Except that Elliot was a terrible correspondent, and Cecil moved about constantly, such that there were only eight letters to be accounted between them in as many years, whereas there were nearly a hundred poems.
Indeed, he had only received word of Jack’s death a handful of days before he’d read Elliot’s first outpouring of grief. He had attended the funeral by such proxy, had learned of the house in this way, of Jack’s largesse. Knowing that Elliot was safe and well cared for only just edged out his frustration at being unable to do that caring himself. He wanted to be the one to shower Elliot with a fortune which he did not have, but which Elliot now did.
His hand tightened on one thin shoulder he hadn’t known he was gripping, and Elliot shifted, tipping the hat to one side and cutting a glance up at him through cat-slit eyes. Cecil had a mad thought to kiss him.
“Tell me a poem,” he demanded instead, brushing his thumb across the tilt of that up-turned nose. Elliot blinked and looked away, moved the hat back to cover his face. A few moments’ pause, then out from under the straw circle came a string of words, intensely familiar, that lifted Cecil and carried him on a breeze of sound across the years of a life he had never, would never, share to his hearts’ content.
He drifted to sleep in that floating world and woke only when they bumped the shore.
Before he was fully aware, Elliot had already stretched and hopped onto the bank, graceful as a gazelle. Cecil took the offered hand without complaint, let himself and the basket be helped out before Elliot pulled the boat halfway up the bank.
“Breakfast?” he asked, and Cecil was surprised to find himself hungry. The last traces of queasiness were gone. Indeed, he wanted nothing more than to climb back into the boat and try that bit with lifting Elliot’s hat again – he was half-wild with spring and had an idea of what he might accomplish this time – but Elliot had hefted the basket and was moving back towards the village, which was in no wise a good place to be considering such sun-born impulses.
They ate sitting on some farmer’s stone wall, the slate cool against his legs, watching the buttercups grow. It was at once the most wonderful and most frustrating meal Cecil had ever taken. He was careful not to reach into the basket at the same time as Elliot, careful not to let their hands brush, careful not to stare too long out of the corner of his eye at that sharp profile, the jutting chin and the lowered lashes. Wind ruffled softly through the grasses, picking up as it went along. Clouds drited over, gathered on the eastern fells. At one point, a horseman rode by on the main road, kicking up dust. They watched him until he disappeared, their mutual silence heavy with something unnameable.
Elliot broke it by sliding to his feet.
“I’ll go return the basket.” His voice was subdued. Cecil wanted to argue, but then he thought, no, we’ll go up to the high pastures and ramble until noon, and I will get him alone under the shade of the old elm tree, and we shall see what we shall see, but Elliot merely walked away, one hand in his pocket and the basket bumping his knee like a forgotten child. Cecil felt coarse, a giant come face to face with a golden harp too small and perfect for his clumsy hands; had he broken it? Elliot was an artist of words and cadence, motion and form, and at that moment Cecil felt himself very much tolerated on account of past good behavior.
He had tried so hard not to offend. They were no longer schoolboys. Cecil never touched Elliot now, let Elliot touch him instead, tried to build anew a little of the understanding they had lost to time and- -Elliot was coming back along the road, but he was not stopping; he gathered Cecil up without a word or gesture, pulled him along by presence alone. Gone was the carefree amble, replaced by the firm strides of a man with a clear goal in mind, and that fey face was set in a way that was strange to it.
They did not go up to the pastures but took the road straight home, through grass that had dried in the hours since their last passage. With hats on their heads and a tight feeling in his skin from too much sun, Cecil could well imagine they had just returned from some years-long quest, with everything around them changed by subtle time. That was the only way he could account for how everything looked different, sharper, though his memory told him all was exactly as it had been that morning.
As they neared the inn-cum-house he could see the bright pink tea-roses that grew up beside Miss Catherine’s window, whitewash framing them like a Dutch painting. The heavy oak door stood open with the lady herself standing in’t, outlined in a strange reverse to her flowers, all paleness against the dark inside.
At the sight of her, he grew afraid.
When they reached the door at last, she did not speak, merely lifted her hand to offer a wrinkled telegram printed on crisp, grey paper, like a summons to hell.
It’s come, Cecil thought, and understood suddenly that there would be no more mornings to accustom himself to the tiny boat, no more afternoons spent wading through tall grass and baiting the sheep. No, none of it. There would be only packing and a dogcart and a long train ride to the sea, and who knew when he would return to these hills again?
“Elliot,” he said, but Elliot had gone inside. Cecil stood in the sun a moment more, then bowed his head and ceded to the inevitable. He had missed his chance; that was all.
You leaned out of my casement, careless of the flow’rs,
Your arms upon the sill, your laughter down the hours
Rang out, as bells at noon, a truth I could not shake –
The words of it, the sense of it, are lost now that I wake.
– in a letter from Lieutenant Lord Cecil Halbrook to Elliot Greaves, dated June 12, 1857.
The bell on Ned’s Raleigh rang out a warning – or perhaps it was crowing – as they darted around a gaggle of shiny-buttoned schoolboys headed for town centre, probably to find pastries.
Stefan was done with sweets for the year – he wondered if Ned was trying to fatten him up for some unknown purpose, but dismissed the idea. Ned with a plan was obvious, not subtle. For example, right now Ned obviously planned to beat him to the foot of the mountain, and if he didn’t put some effort into pedalling, he really would lose.
He passed the other bicycle in a blur of crook-toothed grin and wisps of brown hair blown back, mere moments before the ground tipped up and became a mountain.
Mein Gott, these English did not play about with their hills, at least not this far north. He’d been fooled by the southern ones, the little green boulders a man could jog up on a quarter hour with hardly a laboured breath.
These were not those hills.
He stood erect and used his whole body to force each pedal down hard, measuring progress by tufts of grass and the broad trunks of oak trees as he passed them with painful slowness. Behind him, Ned’s gasps set a steady counterpoint to his own, a proof that he was not alone in this world of pain and triumph, framed by picturesque countryside.
They rested once – or, rather, Stefan had just passed a clump of foxglove that seemed to wave him on when he realised Ned’s panting had disappeared from at his back. He risked a glance, and this left him open to attack from the ruts dug up by buggies and autocars. He struck one, caught his chest on the handlebars, and pulled off, swearing.
“Come sit,” Ned called from some ways back, patting the flat stone on which he perched, but Stefan was loathe to lose any of his hard-won ground. He shook his head and dropped to a patch of grass beside the foxglove, rubbing absently at his chest.
“We should have brought the buggy,” he mused, and the wind must have carried his voice and its subtle suggestion of surrender, because it was only a few moments later that his vision was filled with Ned’s boots trudging steadily upwards, a slow-spinning wheel on either side. The fool was going uphill on foot, his hands firm upon the bars of the torture device, and he was ringing the bell with his thumb. Brrrrring!
Nun ja. A man could not admit defeat just because his legs ached.
They goaded each other on and refused to stop again, though neither moved to re-mount, either. They stood aside only once to watch a couple on a two-seater race downhill at speeds man was not meant to travel. High-pitched laughter and bits of the woman’s hat followed in their wake. Ned scuffed a silk flower with his toe and they resumed their toil.
An age later they came out from the trees to catch sight of green pastures rolling down and away on every side, marked here and about with waist-high stone walls so old they seemed to have been left there by the last ice age. Stefan’s legs felt quite ready to fall off, so he leaned his bike against the closest wall and followed Ned through a slat-board fence into-
-a stone circle as large as a small ballroom. Blinking, he turned, taking it in: the moss, the weathering, the perfection of the circle and cloud-shadows on the hillsides beyond and below them. An excellent hill indeed.
As if compelled, he went to stand on one of the stones to see how far he could see. Ned didn’t seem to find that sufficient; he moved restlessly forward, pushing past the stones and into the buttercup-strewn field beyond, down firmly into sheep territory, heading for the first wall.
Stefan made a frustrated sound in his throat. The nice thing about Cambridge had been the lines. Walls and boundaries, and only so far Ned could go without bumping into one of them and bouncing back. The unspoken rule of manhood, not to mention friendship, was that Stefan had to go as far as Ned did, had to equal him in everything (and the reverse, of course). In the south, in town, this had been easier.
He feared Ned would get beyond him up here, so far beyond he could never catch up.
The object of his fears stopped just shy of the first wall, seemed to contemplate it for a while, then bent and began tearing at the yellow-flecked grass with both hands.
Ah, he was back to making a mess. No need to worry.
Stefan stepped down from his perch with a twang from both legs and painfully staggered towards a stone tall enough to provide some shade. The shadow fell away from the road, in the direction Ned had taken, but this was purely coincidence. He felt no concern.
Dropping to the grass, he leaned back and closed his eyes.
He opened them again when something brushed his hand, a brief feather-touch that felt like satin but softer, more roughly grained, and found a daisy chain wrought of buttercups resting on his thigh.
“It will be crushed,” he said, but Ned was already up and gone, dancing around the stones and touching each one, his smooth, boyish voice caroling nonsense that slowly resolved itself into rhyme.
“Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie
Kissed the boys and made them cry-”
“Don’t say that,” Stefan wanted to sound firm, but it came out harsh and hollow. “Someone might hear you.”
“The birds?” Ned asked. “The bees? Besides, he did. Kissed me. Made me cry.”
“Not all at once.”
“How would you know?”
“Come here,” Stefan ordered, and this time his voice obeyed him, steady as the rocks. “Sit down. Show some respect for the dead.”
Ned complied on the first two points. Who knew about the third? The ways of authors are obvious and opaque.
“Will you tell all of Europe about our ride today?” Stefan asked as they sat shoulder to shoulder against the stone. “Or will you keep it between us?”
“I don’t know.” That was probably true. He wouldn’t know until he wrote it, or didn’t.
“It doesn’t matter.” But somehow it did. The things between himself and Ned – and George, poor George – these were things the world did not need to be reading, disguised as travel narrative or not. Somehow things always leaked through. That was how he had known about George, even after he should have known. Months after.
Someday, would someone else pick up the Times and find his soul in there, pinned to the page?
“I don’t know why you brought me here. We could have sat at home in the garden-” Home. Oh dear.
“To show you the rocks.”
Stefan blinked, derailed. “These rocks?”
“Do you see any others?”
He craned his neck, looking about. “Are they special?”
“I like them. They’re mossy and useless and sit on top of a hill all day in the rain.”
“I see.” There was a certain Ned-sense to that, a nonsense that tickled at the back of the brain. “Then when you visit me in Munich, I will show you a hundred damp castles that smell of mothballs and mold.”
“We have those here.”
“And we have big stones and green pastures and sheep.”
“But are they English sheep?”
“You, sir, have stolen our sheep.”
“Can you ever forgive us?”
Ned’s laughter was soft, easy. He was leaning quite close now; Stefan found it simple enough to reach out, to lay his hand on Ned’s wrist. Ned turned, twisting cat-like to land with his head in Stefan’s lap, looking up at the blue, blue sky, the impossible blue of perfect summer days just like when they were at university, holidays spent out in the rolling hills of the south. Ned breathed deep through his open mouth; his crooked tooth caught the light, made him look just barely real.
Then as now, Stefan found it a shock, that first brush of soft-wild hair against his knuckles, the ordinary brownness of it separating into a kaleidoscope of colors as he sifted it, lifting it to the light. He loved the way Ned’s eyes drifted closed when he wasn’t looking, so that all he caught was a flutter of brown like finch wings against the freckled cheeks. In the distance he heard strange sounds, raucous shouts and laughter and a low growl, but nothing could reach him here, nothing could pierce this mossy circle of stones, the circle of yellow and green lying whole on the grass beside them, him leaning over Ned lying on him, his lips brushing temple, cheekbone, the corner of that quirked mouth-
“Look at that!”
“Help me out-”
“Oh, my shoe!”
“You’re such a baby.”
“Look, someone else is here.”
Stefan yanked his head up, heart pounding wildly. Someone was – oh, and they had almost – “Scheisse,” he said, feelingly.
“Quite,” Ned muttered. “Also, I hate Cora. Tell her for me.”
“You have to move,” Stefan hissed, shoving at Ned’s shoulders.
“Don’t remind me.”
They scrambled to their feet. Stefan saw a piece of grass stuck in Ned’s hair and reached for it-
“Ned! Stef! So this is where you got to.”
-and jerked his hand away as if burned.
They were confronted by a bevy of gayly-dressed girls, all just a bit younger than themselves and sporting the most ridiculous hats. They were introduced in a blur by Ned’s cousin Cora, who had borrowed the Limited since no one was using it (“I told you,” Stefan hissed under his breath) and was now escorting her entire finishing school, it seemed, on a tour of the lakes.
“You’ll come with us,” Cora declared. Ned made a face. “And don’t make excuses about the bicycles. I know you dragged Keaton and the buggy into town this morning. You were just going to have him load them up and take you home anyway; he can come up and do it without you pretending to help.”
“My hair,” Ned complained, and the girls laughed.
“It can’t get any worse,” Cora assured him. “Maybe some of the grass will blow out along the way.”
She won, of course, and the boys piled into the back seat with far too many female forms pressed round them. Someone got an elbow into Stefan’s bruised ribs, and he inhaled sharply. Ned gave him a look of sympathy, then he, too, was swamped under a tide of pastels.
English girls had no shame.
Despite the discomfort, Stefan kept looking back as they bumped too fast down the road, unable to keep from watching as the two forlorn bicycles sitting propped against the wall were lost beyond a curve. Ahead there was only the long plunge into dense foliage – a forest not worthy of his homeland, but deep and old nonetheless – now reduced to branches whipping by with no triumph in the passage.
– from a telegram found in the possessions of PFC Edward Carlisle, dated August 2, 1914 and sent from the Paddington telegraph office in London.
“The whole house to ourselves,” Ian said. “Whatever shall we do?” He flopped down on the couch and let his eyelids droop, which was entirely too much invitation from Sam’s point of view.
“How ’bout a tour?” How about a change of scenery, but it worked. Ian was up and out the door in a flash, and if his hand on Sam’s wrist was causing the pulse to flutter strangely there, well, it was probably a loss of circulation.
‘Tour’ of course didn’t mean the house, most of which Sam had caught in flashes between dashing here and there, seeing everything there was to be seen in the Lake District, which really was mostly a tourist trap when you thought about it. Oh, the trees were nice and the sheep not too offensive, but all the houses had this peculiar quaint look to them, like they’d been built three years ago as bed-‘n-breakfasts, except the potted flowers were real.
He supposed being an American meant he didn’t understand these things. Still, if someone had called him up and told him they’d bought a house in a West Virginia mining town made famous by some early 20th century folk singers, he probably would have smiled and taken that number out of his cell.
But it was Ian and they were poets, 19th century in fact, and the house was practically a collectible. Certainly a good investment. That Ian treated it as a place to live only emphasized that Ian was a nut, which had always been true. The Englishman in New York, so to speak, only it had been New Jersey and even in college Ian was to a typical Englishman what Walt Whitman was to Sam’s home state, namely, bugfuck but famous, so they claimed him.
The nice thing about Ian was that he didn’t keep a stereo in the house. The not-so-nice thing was that he kept one in the garden.
“Jeez, don’t-” but it was too late, those nimble fingers already dancing across the dials in their little green casing, blended in with the rest of the garden, and from speakers hidden under the columbines and up in the beech, he could hear the beginnings of some serious lesbian crooning. Not that he minded lesbians with guitars, but shouldn’t they be listened to by other lesbians? And he could not possibly qualify in any universe, since he didn’t even like girls.
Feared them, honestly. Getting Ian’s step-sister out of the house had been a stroke of real luck, and he planned to enjoy the silence.
Which meant he really should be leaving this DiFranco wannabe out in the garden and finding them someplace to be that was not the couch, was not the bedroom-
“Have you seen the greenhouse?” Ian asked, then laughed. “No, of course you haven’t. It’s great. I had them convert the old carriage house, what parts were still standing…” Abruptly they were through a door in the hedge – bright green, of course – and stepping into a house built of glass and light.
It was a jungle.
Giant ferns tapped his shoulder; camellias brushed his knees like open mouths, and he thought, god, this is so gay. Trust Ian to have a gay jungle in his gatehouse. Trust Ian to have a gatehouse.
Speaking of whom, there went that beautiful ass, dwindling down a dark tunnel of groping green. Sam followed reluctantly, bending over and pushing his way through with both hands. The heat and the humidity rose around him, the air palpably thickening until he burst out of the jungle into a grotto. A real, honest-to-goodness grotto, the kind rich eccentrics had put in because they could, complete with enormous hot tub and that spongy no-slip decking that only comes in blue or, yes, green.
“It keeps the place heated,” Ian explained, pulling his shirt up over his head. “Keeps it from drying out, too.” He moved on to his belt, tugging it open. Sam looked away.
The garden was actually impressive, now that he didn’t feel he was being attacked by it. Lilies bobbed beside his head, their long yellow stamens contrasting with perfectly curved white petals, soft and scented. Above him, the evening sky shone so clear he could imagine no glass between him and the peach-edged clouds, the dark fells that rimmed the valley in which they were nestled.
A rustle from below and then a splash, and his eyes were drawn back to where Ian was breast-stroking lazily across the hot tub – small pool, to be honest – each movement of his legs rippling the muscles defined by his wet boxers.
For another guy, the smiley faces might be a turn-off. For Sam it was a sense-memory, soft and ragged, of Ian’s panting breaths and squirming limbs, body heat and the salty taste of his mouth – pretzels? he always wondered, after – and two minutes of the best make-out session of his life before Ian reached up and put a hand on his chest and said “JB”, pretty much ruining Sam’s hard-on and the rest of his junior year.
All Sam got out of the experience was that salt taste, the feel of Ian’s muscles bunching under those boxers, and the sure and certain knowledge that he had to be first in line the next time they handed out prizes like Ian’s ass.
“Come on, get in,” Ian called, and Sam was really glad he was a grown-up, with grown-up self-control, and that he’d seen Ian in his boxers at least five times this past week. Otherwise, his zipper would not have gone down as easily as it did.
He stripped down fast, not making a production of it, and sat on the edge with his legs stretched out, toes just touching the water.
“Pussy,” Ian laughed, and Sam kicked a little spray out at him, which didn’t discourage him in the slightest from coming over and laying his head on the squishy surface beside Sam’s knee. “You can see the stars from in here,” he said. Sam looked up and, hey, you could. You could also see a spattering of raindrops, which made no sense, but they were slowing, twisting, and then he realized they were snowflakes.
“It’s snowing,” he said, and Ian replied, “I didn’t like him better. He just asked first,” and Sam wondered, what the hell? But Ian’s chest was out of the water, arching next to him and he thought, oh, now. Now.
He put his hand on the damp skin, let it trace the path of water droplets upwards to a pulse that fluttered – shock of recognition, him too? – and from there to cupping Ian’s jaw, to leaning over and kissing him. Salt-sweet and a low, bitter tang that must have been tea – stupid Brit – and he was shifting around, trying to get a better angle and sliding a hand into wet-plastered hair, lifting, tugging at Ian’s arm, come on–
“Yeah, okay,” Ian gasped, pulling away. “Give me a bloody sec.” And he turned and pushed down on the deck with both hands, rising up and shedding water like a Greek god, yeah, Sam knew he was fried when those drooping eyelids spoke of oil paintings and marble to him, but then Ian was kneeling up next to him and he stopped thinking.
Reach. Grab. Pull, and he had Ian up against his mouth again, fingertips skating across his ribs even as his own hands moved unerringly to the prize, getting a double handful of Ian’s ass and squeezing.
Ian squeaked and shuddered against him, lips moving frantically, tongue snaking in and out. They didn’t have words, couldn’t possibly, but this was seven years in the making for Sam, at least, and he didn’t need the help. He got Ian angled right and tumbled them over, not caring about the little “oomph” from underneath. He was taking no chances.
Hands were scrabbling at his bare back – were those nails? – but the damp between them made the friction too much. With a frustrated noise, he pulled back enough to reach into Ian’s boxers and pull him out, then set to work with his well-practiced right hand. Ian shivered and made appreciative noises into his mouth; Sam rewarded him by tightening his fingers and stopping just beneath the head on each upstroke to give a little tug.
He was starting to lose his breath, gasping around the edges of their sloppy kiss, vision graying, when Ian reached up and put a hand on his chest.
Ian pulled back, blinked at him, then his eyes widened as he understood. “No, no,” he stammered. “I just meant-” and he rolled them over, pushed Sam down to the floor and reached to pull him out in turn. “Together,” he said, and Sam got it, got that, reached his hand down to gather them both up, and jesus christ! Ian was moving, rocking above him, both hands resting curled on his thighs, tongue peeking out the corner of his mouth.
“Fuck,” Sam gasped. “Later,” Ian replied.
The image that gave him, the picture of Ian with his knees spread wide and that incredible, gorgeous ass lifted up like an offering was more than Sam could take. With a groan he felt all the way in his toes, he tightened and came, squeezing them together fiercely until Ian cried out, eyes wide, back arching as he shot all over Sam’s chest.
“Blood hell,” came the whisper as he fell forward in slow motion, settling against Sam’s chest and burrowing. Sam wound one hand in his hair and let the other take what was apparently a natural position, that is, a possessive grip on his favorite ass, and thought about turning British.
Above them, snow still fell against the unfogged glass. A plane went by overhead, the echo of it cracking across the valley in waves. In its wake the lesbian crooning returned, whining about the state of the world, but it was far away and he could ignore it. Would ignore it.
They didn’t need the world. The world was going to hell in a hand-basket and he couldn’t bring himself to care, because this was what they’d needed all along. This moment alone, not the frantic racing about, the outings, the sights, the public places. They’d just needed a moment without interruptions, a day when it snowed in April.
“When is Kirsty coming back?” he asked a conveniently placed ear, then licked it.
“Next week,” came the reply from near his collarbone. “I’ll phone and tell her so tomorrow.”
We’ve got a ship for two
We’ll fuck our way to other planets
And make the universe jealous
– Exerpt from “Supernova” by Ian Darling, from the album “Excuse Me While I Pat Your Ass”
Oh man I really liked this. I don’t think I’ve read it before which is RIDICULOUS because I have read, like, EVERY S2B2 STORY. But it’s so melancholy and sad and I like that there so much of it open for interpretation! Really nice job.