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Within Reach can now be downloaded in pdf from Goodreads – http://www.goodreads.com/ebooks/download/13601862-within-reach
. This story was written for an anthology call for Storm Moon Press, back when I had just started publishing. I submitted it in July 2011 and only later found out that no decisions would be made until February of 2012. So I decided to just try to forget I ever wrote this one. Then in February it was returned to me, because SMP had not received enough submissions to put out the anthology. I was going to just file it, but I thought, what the hell, I might as well post it here for a while.
The anthology call was for stories about an encounter between a human and one of the Fair Folk on Midsummer’s Night. No HEA or HFN ending required. And that’s what I wrote. The end isn’t particularly dark or painful, but the guys don’t walk off into the sunset either. The fae are often complicated and seldom kind, to each other or to the humans they meet by moonlight.
by Kaje Harper
Copyright 2011 Kaje Harper
Warning: this title contains M/M sex and explicit language.
Within Reach is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Gene nursed the dregs of his beer, swirling the glass slowly. He could have done with another one, or maybe another three, but his wallet was as flat as an anorexic’s ass. He lifted the thick rim to his lips and barely touched his tongue to the remaining drops of amber liquid.
Up on the stage at the front of the bar, the folk band that was playing sounded like they’d had one too many themselves. The piper hit a false note, and Gene winced. Going out tonight had been a bad idea. But staying home had been a worse one. The guitar player called out, “Midsummer’s Eve, people. What do you want to hear?” She took up the opening chords of Black Velvet Band.
Enough already. Gene slid the mug away across the table and stood. For a moment he had to brace his hand on the edge of the chair. He must have had more of those beers then he’d realized. Perhaps it would be smart to wait a while before driving home. But then his eye caught a motion in the bar mirror, and he was very glad he was already on his feet. Because there, walking in the front door, was an even bigger mistake than driving drunk would be.
Les was no doubt a nice kid, and he was one long cool drink of water. He was also one big fucking pain in Gene’s ass. Not literally, since Gene had never once in their intense, hot night let the kid top him. But Les had taken “I want to fuck you,” for “I’ll love you forever.” The kid just would not take a hint. He showed up where Gene was and sat gazing at him with stars in his eyes. He’d waited outside the hardware store where Gene worked, and invited him out for a drink. Hell, two days ago the kid had come into the store and bought about six random boxes of miscellaneous fasteners, just to have a conversation. If Gene had been ten years younger, and a lot less damaged, it would have been flattering.
As it was, he made a quick scan for an exit that wouldn’t take him past the stage. Gene didn’t think the kid had noticed him yet. Les was staring at the cute boy playing drums. God willing, the drummer would take an interest. They were near the same age, and Les deserved someone who wouldn’t look at him and see a child.
Gene sidled over to the waitress coming out of the door to the back. Fumbling, he held out his last ten-spot. If he ran out of gas before payday, he’d just walk. “I need to get out of here without a guy up front seeing me. Is there a back door?”
“We’re not supposed to…” But her fingers closed around the bill. “Okay. Go past the kitchen and there’s a door on the left takes you into the alley. Make sure the door shuts hard enough to lock. Watch out for the rats around the dumpster.”
“Thanks, Mandi.” Gene slid past her into the narrow hallway. From the kitchen on the right, the smell of frying bar food wafted on a gust of grease-saturated air. On the left there was a metal door with dirt marks around the handle. Gene wrestled the stiff door open, and slipped out. He bumped the door shut with his hip, hard, and heard the lock catch. A quick twist of the handle confirmed that it had locked.
The alley was narrow and dim. Above the door, a single floodlight should have illuminated the step, but it had been cocked off at an angle and shed its beam futilely down toward the end of the alley. There was a moon tonight, but in this urban canyon it was hidden behind steel and concrete. Gene picked a direction in the darkness, heading towards the nearer street, and began walking carefully.
The smell was a vivid tribute to the presence of dumpsters. A squish under one foot suggested that not all the trash had gone into the dumpsters. Gene cursed. These were his favorite boots. Maybe slapping Les down one more time would have been a better choice, but he just couldn’t do it. The kid would look at him with bewildered hurt, and Gene couldn’t bring himself to be brutal enough to make Les really hate him. So the kid kept thinking he was in love, kept trying, looking at Gene with those big brown eyes….
Despite his slowly improving dark-sight, Gene put his foot down on something that rolled. In his half-plastered state, it was enough to dump him on his ass. He reached out to break the fall, and landed hard on his non-existent right hand. The stump of his arm slammed the pavement and for a moment all he saw was whirling stars. It hurt so bad he couldn’t find breath to curse with.
As he huddled on the ground, clutching his throbbing forearm to his chest, he heard a rustling sound. Fucking rats. That was all he needed, to end up bruised, covered in garbage and bitten by rats. He yelled, “Scat, you buggers,” in the general direction of the sound. Instead of rodent feet scurrying, he heard a groan.
Gene stood, slowly and carefully, and moved in the direction of the sound. “Is someone there? Are you okay?”
Another soft groan, and then what might have been the word, “Please.”
Gene rounded the edge of the dumpster. A thin beam of moonlight found this spot, enough to make out the huddled body of a man, slumped against the brick wall of the alley. Gene hesitated. There were plenty of drunks and derelicts around. He sympathized. Hell, sometimes he wondered what was keeping him from joining them. But he didn’t want to get involved.
The man lifted his head, and looked Gene in the eyes. It was an illusion, some trick of the light, but the man’s eyes seemed to glow. They were blue, but not a blue Gene had ever seen. Bluer than winter skies, bluer then iris flowers, bluer even than the sea on a truly clear day when that color went down to hidden depths. Gene blinked and stepped forward, involuntarily. “Are you hurt?”
“I fear so.” Both the words and the tone eliminated any thought of drunken derelicts. The man’s voice was clear and deep, and each syllable came out distinct. It wasn’t really an accent but it was…different. Gene dropped to one knee beside the man.
“How bad? Tell me.”
In answer, the man opened the hand that he held to the right side of his chest. In the chancy light, the wide spill of blood over the man’s white shirt was near-black. The liquid glistened on his hand, his neck, and on the hilt of the knife socketed in his chest.
“Holy shit!” Gene put out his hand toward the man, and then thought better of it. No way should he even touch that. “Look, just hang on, man. I’ll call an ambulance.” He reached for his cell phone.
Strong, wet fingers clamped on his wrist, before he could touch the screen, and the phone dropped from his hand. The man grunted with pain and then snarled, “Do not call for anyone.”
“What?” Gene stared at those calm eyes. “You’re gonna bleed to death if you don’t get help. It’s a miracle you’re not dead yet. I don’t care what you’re scared of, you need a doctor now!”
“All I need is to get this steel knife out of my chest so I can heal.”
Gene figured it had to be shock. He gentled his voice, trying to ignore the bite of those fingers into his good arm. “Listen. You don’t want to pull that blade out. It may be the only thing keeping you from bleeding to death. Let it stay put until you’re in a hospital.”
“No. It must come out.” The smooth voice was implacable.
“I’ll just pick up my phone and make one call…” He tried to reach down but his one working hand was restrained in a white-knuckled grip.
The man stared up at Gene. “Look at me. Look me in the eyes, human man. You will do this thing. You will pull this knife that burns like fire out of my chest. You will do it now.” Those blue eyes held Gene’s gaze, expanding, seeming to whirl and drag him down. His hand was guided toward the knife-hilt. He almost closed his fingers on it before he realized what he was doing.
He jerked back. “Shit. No, not doing that. Really, it’s the wrong thing. You don’t want to die.”
“Oberon’s balls!” It sounded like swearing. “Look at me. You will do as I say!”
But the gravitational pull of the man’s stare had weakened. Gene twisted his arm free and fell back out of reach, scooping up his phone. “What the fuck is wrong with you? I want to help.”
The man tried to sit straighter and hissed through clenched teeth. “Cannot you believe I know what help I need?”
“Frankly, no. You’re in shock and talking kind of crazy. They’ll help you at the hospital, I promise.”
“Damn you to the blackest hells!”
Gene jumped as the man lunged to grab him again. It was awkward on both their parts, and he ended up with his wrist trapped again in that steel grasp, and the man’s head in his lap.
“I cannot glamor you, cannot command you, with this cold iron in me,” the man grated. “Look then and see me, really see me, human man. An’ you do this one thing for me, I will grant you your heart’s desire.”
Gene looked down into the man’s eyes. The moonlight showed him that unnatural blue, glowing, fathomless as starlight, and above those eyes, a pair of straight brows black as night. He saw fine pale skin and dark straight hair. And under that hair, ears that swept up to delicate points.
“Okay, fuck, too many beers.” Gene tried to free himself from this entanglement without hurting the man more.
“Look at me. Truly look at me.”
He looked some more. Yeah, those were…pointed ears. And truly weird eyes. Although despite the weird, this man was freaking gorgeous. In fact, Gene felt himself stir just a little, looking at the planes of the man’s cheeks and that full, lush mouth. God, on a scale of one to ten, this guy was a thirty. Or maybe a thirteen, given the weird.
“I’ll bite,” Gene said, hoping against hope. “Some costume? A movie maybe? Is the blood for real?”
“Are you that ignorant? Or just willfully blind? I am of the Daoine Sidhe.” When Gene just blinked the guy added haughtily. “The fae? Some have called us the Fair Folk. I know it has been an eon gone since I walked these hills, but surely we are not forgotten.”
Gene couldn’t help a bark of laughter. “You’re a fairy?”
The pale face on his knee flushed dark with anger. “Men have died for saying that.”
Gene snorted. “Yeah, I’m not fond of the term myself.” When the man tried to struggle up off Gene’s knee, Gene held him still by pressing his stump on the man’s shoulder above the wound. The man subsided with a groan. “The only one here who looks close to dying is you.”
After a grudging pause, the deep voice said, “Yes.”
“Okay.” Gene looked some more. “You’re telling me you’re really not human.” He was just drunk enough for that to seem to make sense. After all, how many humans would be having an argument with a knife sticking out of their chest, instead of hollering for their mommy?
“By the Chalice, I tell you. I tell you three times. I am Daoine Sidhe, I am from Underhill, I am fae.”
“And you want me to pull the knife out. Right now? Here?”
“Now and here, mortal, before the taint of cold iron finishes the job of killing me. Pull it out and I will grant you your heart’s desire.”
Gene looked at his arm. He couldn’t help it, although he felt the flush of heat across his face. Heart’s desire. To be whole again. To have the hand back, in place of that scarred stump. To tie a knot, to write without crabbing his left hand sideways, to see desire in a man’s eyes not tainted by curiosity or pity. It was a stupid fantasy, but he could no more stop the images flashing through his mind than he could hold back the tide. Dear God, to play the guitar again, to create beauty in the intricate weaving of sounds, to make music with his own flesh-and-blood hands. No one could give him that. The hand was gone, dammit, and how dare this man with eyes like the sea force him to face that again!
Something softened in the other man’s face. “Even that, mortal man, even that I can grant you.”
“Bullshit!” Only the heat of blood soaking into his jeans beneath the man’s shoulder kept Gene from just dumping him on the pavement. “Don’t you fucking say that to me, understand?”
“Try me.” Gene thought the man’s voice was weaker, but it still came out steady and smooth. “Pull the knife, keep me safe until I heal and awaken, and then ask what you will.” The man released his wrist and gazed up at him. Those eyes were still like nothing Gene had ever seen.
It was crazy. He should walk away. The buzz in his ears was no doubt every scrap of sense and self-preservation he had ever had, leaving the building.
…I am Daoine Sidhe.
“Shit. Okay. Shit, shit, shit, shit…” On the fourth repeat, he grabbed the handle of the knife and pulled. It was harder than he’d expected. The blade came out a couple of inches and stuck, grating on bone.
“Finish it,” the man snarled.
Gene braced himself with his stump against the man’s good shoulder and yanked. The blade dragged free, eight inches of steel-bladed wickedness with a dull metal hilt, and bright blood running down its blade.
“Now what?” Gene demanded.
There was no answer. He looked down. The man’s eyes were shut, his long dark lashes lay across those high cheekbones like a bruise. For an instant Gene thought he had killed the man, but then those eyes fluttered open again. “I am in your debt, mortal. And I will repay…”
“Gene.” He was tired of being talked down to. “My name is Gene, not ‘mortal’.”
The other man’s lips twitched in a smile, and he looked softer and more real than he ever had with that knife in him. “You may call me Cam.”
“Cam. Okay, Cam. Now what?”
“Now I will heal, but it will take a little time. If there is a secure shelter you know of, you have sworn to keep me safe for a time.”
“I did?” Gene didn’t remember that, but he was drowning in this conversation. He might have promised his firstborn and forgotten it. He hoped not… although as a gay man it was probably academic.
“You did. And I will keep my end of the bargain too, as soon as I am able.”
Gene didn’t want to think about that. Because if he started to believe it, and it wasn’t true… He eased Cam off his knees and stood. “Are you okay there for a moment? Because I don’t think I can carry you, but I can bring the truck back here.”
“I am better. The bleeding is slowing.”
Gene eyed Cam doubtfully, and then slipped off his jean jacket to pillow the man’s head away from the dirty pavement. Cam had his hand pressed to his chest, but Gene thought the patch of blood on his shirt had stopped spreading. Maybe.
“Okay. I’ll get the truck. Just hold still.” He had a sudden thought. “The guy who stabbed you. He’s not going to come back and finish the job, is he?”
“Not likely. He and his confederate struck me and then ran. I think they are long gone.”
“Good. That’s good, then.” Gene wanted the whole story, but not now, not with Cam still bleeding on the alley pavement, and that rattle in the dumpster that probably was rats. “Okay. I’ll be a couple of minutes. Um. I’d be sorry to come back and find you’d bled to death.”
“I shall endeavor not to disappoint you.”
Gene ran for his truck, trying not to think about what his boots were slipping on. The alley dumped out onto Tenth Street, and his pick-up was three blocks down. He pulled out his key fob and unlocked the doors as he got close. Fumbling a little with keys and door handle, he swung into the seat. The feeling of the cell phone in his back pocket made him hesitate. He didn’t have to do this. He could still call and report a wounded man in the alley. Someone else would take care of Cam. It wasn’t Gene’s job.
But his favorite jacket was back there. He told himself that was his main motivation, as he pulled a U-turn and headed back to the alley. He steered the pickup in, cautiously inching forward. He almost expected the alley to be empty, but his headlights picked up Cam’s huddled form. He stopped as close to Cam as he dared get. When he went over, Cam was staring at the truck with distaste.
“That is your transportation?”
“Yeah.” Gene frowned. “She’s a classic. ’54 F-100. She’s got the sweetest lines of any vehicle ever made, and she still runs like a kitten.” She ate all his spare budget too, but Betsy was so worth it.
“She is made of iron. Sitting inside will weaken me.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t thought of that. “You fair… people don’t like iron. Right?”
“It is fatal to us. I would rather lie here bleeding on this dirty ground than ride imprisoned in an iron womb.”
“Um. Right.” Not that there was much womb-like about Betsy despite her name, although the cab was sort of oval and cushioned, but… he dragged his wayward brain back to the topic. It was harder than he expected and he wondered with dismay if he was really okay to drive. Either the beer or the sight of Cam’s eyes and the sound of his voice were really fucking with Gene’s concentration. He wasn’t sure which one to hope for. “So you’d rather stay here?”
Maybe Gene could just drive home after all and forget this.
“I would if I thought ’twere safe to lie here through the night. As it is, we must find another way to move me.”
Dirty alley versus vintage pick-up, and Cam was almost choosing the alley? Either this guy was the real deal or… or they were both crazy. You were supposed to humor crazy people. “How about in the back. In the bed. That’s open to the sky.”
“Lying on the metal?”
“Um, I have a tarp, and some blankets in the cab.” He’d occasionally lain out in her under the stars himself. “We can wrap you up so you don’t touch anything.” He let a little irritation show. “Or you can just hang out here and wait for someone to show up with a horse and carriage.”
“I will ride in the back. Help me up.”
Well, okay then. Gene bent without comment, slid his good arm under Cam’s armpit and heaved. Cam made it to his feet, swaying a little but upright. Gene could feel little tremors passing through Cam’s body and pulled him in tighter. Cam was a couple of inches taller than Gene, which was tall since Gene topped six feet. The other man… hell, the fae, since he was standing and walking after being stabbed in the chest and Gene losing his hold on his skepticism…the fae was lean but all solid muscle. Cam’s arm across Gene’s neck was wiry and strong. His chest was hard and hot alongside Gene’s. His shirt was silk (or polyester, Gene made himself snark.) His dark hair where it brushed Gene’s cheek was even silkier.
Together they hobbled over to the back of the truck. Gene propped Cam against the brick wall while he let down the tailgate and fetched out the blankets. There was some junk in the bed of the truck, but it was tied down okay, and there was space for a man to stretch out. Gene laid out the tarp, and then both blankets on top of that. Then he guided Cam over and heaved and wrestled him up into the truck. Cam grunted in pain, but made no other complaint.
When the fae was stretched out on the blankets, Gene climbed up beside him to tuck them in over any nearby metal. “I’m gonna drive careful,” he said, “But you may still slide around some. This ladder over here is wood, if you need something to hold onto.”
Cam’s eyes were dark in his pale face. “That should work.”
Gene hovered for a moment. “I’m not gonna find you dead when I get where we’re going, am I?”
“Not unless you kill me with your driving.”
“Fuck you,” Gene said, as casually as if Cam was a friend. And then regretted it twice. Because he and Cam weren’t friends. And because something in the slight smile he got back from the fae made him think they both were picturing the fucking, and he was totally not going there.
Gene drove carefully through the dark streets. He took his turns slowly, to avoid shifting his untethered passenger. But he tried to compromise between safety and looking too suspicious in case they passed a cruising patrol car. Driving too slowly and carefully could get you pulled over just as fast as driving too quickly. All Gene needed was to blow over the Breathalyzer limit with a bleeding man in the back of his pick-up.
Either luck was with them, or Cam had some kind of spell going, because they made it all the way to Gene’s place without seeing a single black-and-white. Gene hurried to open the front door of the house, and then went back for Cam. Already when he eased the fae out of the truck, Cam seemed steadier on his feet. Gene wrapped his arm around Cam’s waist anyway, and guided him into the main room. He lowered Cam onto the couch.
Cam looked around, and Gene tried to imagine what he was seeing. The house was tiny, one main living room-kitchen combo, one bedroom, one bath. It was the privacy of the wooded lot that had made it worth every penny of the insurance settlement. Gene kept it neat, but not pristine. The couch was leather, as black as Cam’s hair. There was a recliner, a low coffee table, and a kitchen table with a couple of chairs. The dishes were done, but Gene was glad the bedroom door was shut. He hadn’t made the bed that morning. And he didn’t like how looking at Cam on his couch made his thoughts turn to the bed.
“Can I get you anything?” he asked. “Water, coffee, food maybe? The bathroom is through there.” Had he picked up his dirty towel that morning? And why the hell did he care?
“I will be glad of food and drink soon,” Cam said with a smile. “And the bathroom.”
Gene eyed him closely. He looked…different. His eyes were blue but less…vivid. His face was less long and chiseled, his ears were… “Hey, you look human.”
“’Tis a glamor. I could not hold it with the iron in my body but now I am healing.” He stretched just a little, moving his legs more than arms. “Do you like it?”
Gene shrugged. “It’s cute, but it’s not you. Not the way the other look was. I liked that better.” Besides, his true face was alien enough to remind Gene not to hope for too much, in any sense.
One of Cam’s elegant brows rose. “Truly?” A shimmer passed over him and then he was Cam again, eyes like the ocean, ears like Mr. Spock.
“Yeah, that’s better,” Gene said. “I always had a thing for Mr. Spock.”
“Never mind.” He was going to be keeping his thing to himself. “Do you want to tell me what happened?”
Cam shrugged slightly and winced. “It has been a long time since I visited the human realm. The last time I came out there, it was a forest glade. This time, I ended up appearing right beside two humans engaged in some kind of transaction. They yelled, and one stuck a knife in me while I was still disoriented from walking the gates. Then they both ran. I would have pulled out the knife myself, but the hilt was iron, and I could not grasp it firmly enough without losing consciousness.” He held out his hand, showing a palm blackened and burned like he had touched a hot poker.
“Holy shit! We need to put something on that.”
“It is no matter. It is healing now. In a few hours it will be well.”
“Really?” Gene didn’t glance down at his own arm. He just didn’t. “That’s quite some trick, to heal like that.”
“All of the court Sidhe heal rapidly. So do many of the lesser fae, although for them a wound from cold iron would take longer.”
“So you’re like a noble?”
“I was.” There was cold in Cam’s voice like an arctic blast. Don’t ask.
Gene fumbled for the other thing that had occurred to him…ah, yes. “You say the last time you were there it was forest. But there’s been city on that site for close to a hundred years, I’m sure.”
“And?” That single raised brow made Cam look more like Mr. Spock than ever.
“How old are you?”
“Old enough to know better.” Cam blew out a breath. “Older than the city. Does it really matter by how much?”
Gene swallowed. “No.” Okay, this was the United States so cities here were hardly ancient. Especially on the west coast. But still, three hundred, four hundred, Cam was right; at some point it didn’t matter. “You look younger than me.”
“I look as I choose.”
“So this is a what-do-you-call-it, a glamor too?”
“This is how I look when I do not actively choose to look otherwise.”
“The real you.”
“Gene.” Cam’s voice softened a little. “There is no one real me. I have run under the trees as a hunting cat, and spread wings against the sky.” He suddenly looked tired, even sad. “But this is perchance as close to real as I come.”
“You should sleep,” Gene said.
“Food first, if you please, and water.” Cam’s smile was crooked. “And that bathroom.”
Cam growled. “Don’t be insolent.”
That was better. Gene liked Cam better looking all arrogant than looking sad. “Bathroom’s there. I’ll heat you some soup. Or do you need help with the bathroom?”
That got him an icy glare. “I’ll manage.”
Gene watched out of the corner of his eye to make sure it wasn’t bravado talking, but Cam made it into the bathroom unaided. When he emerged, he had clearly managed to wash up. His shirt dangled in his hand, and his bare chest was clean of blood. And just looking at that chest made Gene’s whole body react.
There was a small strip of white tape over Cam’s left pec, but otherwise he was all silken fair skin and tight muscle. Not a single hair, not a scar or blemish, and his nipples were small tan discs with tight nubs. His stomach was six-pack perfect, and his black pants hung off narrow hips. He held up the shirt. “I was going to clean this, but I think there is no hope for it. Where shall I discard it?”
“Here, give it to me.” Gene quickly went and took the stained shirt. Cam swayed dizzily, and Gene had to drop the shirt to grab Cam’s elbow with his one hand. “Come on, sit down and let’s get some calories into you.” He guided Cam back to the couch, and then scooped up the shirt and tossed it into the trash.
When he set a steaming bowl and a bottle of water on the low table in front of Cam, the fae looked up at him. “You are doing more than I bargained for. It is a gracious gesture.”
“Um, you’re welcome.”
“I do not thank you.” Cam held up a hand at Gene’s irritated grunt. “Not because I do not understand gratitude, but because among my kind, thanks imply a debt. And you never want to acknowledge an open-ended debt to a fae. We drive a hard bargain.”
“Eat up,” Gene snapped.
Cam grinned, suddenly looking about fifteen, and then dug into the soup with a will. He had seconds and then thirds, and finished the water. Gene cleared the dishes, as Cam leaned back among the cushions. “I must sleep now,” Cam said. “A few hours will finish the healing. And then…”
Gene reached out without thinking to put his hand over Cam’s mouth. “Then we’ll see.”
“All right.” Cam lifted his feet up on the couch and wriggled down flat on the cushions.
Gene bent and retrieved his cotton throw from behind the couch, and draped it over the man. “Sweet dreams.”
Cam winced. “No dreams, an’ it please you.”
Gene puttered for a while, cleaning the kitchen, as he heard Cam’s breathing smooth out into sleep. He rinsed the pan, set the soup-can aside for recycling, and got himself a bottle of water out of the fridge. Then he pulled one of the kitchen chairs around to where he could see out the window.
The moonlight slowly crept across his yard. One after another, the bushes and plants in his front lawn were spangled in silver. The shapes swayed in a light breeze, deadheads of the giant dandelions shedding clouds of gossamer threads as the wind caught them.
Midsummer’s Night. He had planned to get stinking drunk and miss this night completely, as he had the three years previously. Foiled by a lack of cash and a stranger in need. He could feel the pain waiting, although for once it was more melancholy than crushing. Before he let himself touch those memories he heard a sharp inarticulate cry from behind him.
He turned to look. Cam writhed on the couch, an arm tangled in the cotton throw. His head was thrown back, the tendons of his neck acutely angled. “No.” His cry was words this time. “No, by the Lady’s grace, no more!”
Gene was drawn closer against his will. Cam whined, like a dog caught in a trap. His full lips thinned and drew back to expose his clenched teeth. Then he shuddered, almost a convulsion, every muscle jerking tight. Gene reached out and grasped one warm bare shoulder. “Wake up, Cam. You’re dreaming.”
“What!” Cam snapped awake and upright, his fingers clamping around Gene’s wrist over bruises already darkening there.
Gene hissed. “Shit, Cam, ease off the arm. I’ve only got the one. I can’t afford to damage it.”
Cam let go as if Gene’s skin was hot. “Sorry! I…I was not myself for a moment.”
“No problem.” Gene sat on the coffee table in front of him and worked his wrist a little. “No damage done. That must have been one hell of a nightmare.”
Cam’s eyes were still so dilated they were almost black. “Hell… Yes, it was that.”
“Want to talk about it?”
Cam stared for a moment, and then slowly the blue glowed in his eyes again. “No, that is not what I wish.” Gradually he leaned forward, his eyes on Gene’s mouth. “I would rather…forget…all…about…it.”
Gene could have moved, could have leaned back. Instead he leaned forward. He had one moment to think, this is a supremely bad idea, before Cam’s mouth closed on his. Then the moment for thinking had passed. Cam’s mouth was pure flame, sucking him in and heating him almost to burning. Cam’s lips, his tongue, for once Gene had no iota of control. He opened helplessly. But Cam didn’t force the pace. He kissed leisurely, as if they had all the time in the world. He sucked Gene’s lower lip between his teeth and nipped gently, and then probed with just the tip of his tongue, stroking it against Gene’s. Gene realized his hand on Cam’s shoulder was the only thing keeping him upright.
After a moment Cam pulled back. His blue eyes were sparkling, like light skipping over little waves. His smile was just a little hesitant. “Gene? Yes?”
He could still say no? Gene struggled to find words, when even breath was hard to come by. “If I…if we…does it mean anything, cost anything?”
“No.” Cam cupped his head and kissed him, sweetly and gently. “No. This is just you and me, drowning pain in pleasure. No price, no strings, no debt, I swear it.”
Two words, no more thought. Cam pulled him forward onto the couch. Gene landed hard against Cam’s hips, and Cam wrapped a leg over him. Cam’s hands slid to Gene’s ass, pulling him in tight. Gene found Cam’s mouth, kissing him forcefully this time, demanding entrance. Cam opened sweetly, only the sparkle of his eyes saying that this was his choice and no surrender. Gene drove his tongue deep.
They kissed hard, rougher, lips and tongue moving on to teeth on skin, to sharp bites against neck and ears, as they frotted together. Cam shoved Gene’s shirt up and over his head. Gene’s hips bucked involuntarily, pressed against Cam’s groin. And suddenly Cam turned them, his strength startling, until Gene was trapped underneath. Cam rolled over him like thunder, thrusting, slamming down as he kissed Gene’s eyelids and neck and then took over his mouth. Gene felt the heat rise between them, until suddenly Cam cried out and stiffened against him. And Gene wrapped his arm and a half around the fae’s back and held him close as Cam trembled through his climax and after.
Eventually, Cam said roughly in Gene’s ear, “Well, that was smoothly done. I’m assured of your good opinion now.”
“Hush.” Gene kissed the man under one perfect pointed ear. “You’re fine. That was…how long has it been for you?”
“How long?” Cam laughed harshly. “Twice forty-nine years.”
“Forty-nine…ninety-eight… Jesus!” Gene twisted a little to see Cam’s eyes. “You’re kidding.”
“No. Perhaps it is some small excuse for my inconsiderate behavior.” He slid a hand between them to where Gene’s hard cock still strained against his zipper.
Gene wanted to ease the strain in Cam’s voice. “Not so inconsiderate if you’re not done yet.”
“Ah.” That was a better smile on Cam’s beautiful lips. “Perhaps not.” He slid down Gene’s body unbuttoning, unzipping. And then Gene lifted his hips to let Cam free him from his denim prison. Gene’s cock jutted optimistically skyward. Cam closed long elegant fingers around it, and the smiled hotly into Gene’s eyes and lowered his head.
“Gmph.” The feel of Cam’s mouth on him stripped Gene of any coherent words. He had barely time to think that three or four hundred years was time enough to get really good at something, before he lost the ability to think at all. Cam’s throat was the perfect tightness and his tongue found every secret spot, and that heat was like nothing Gene had ever known. And it was only moments before he was spilling into the other man’s mouth, his hand clenched in silky black strands, his stump beating against the cushions in time with his pulse.
Cam milked him empty and licked him clean, before rising of him with a self-satisfied smile. “There. More even now.”
“Except you have cum in your pants,” Gene said. He would have kicked himself, but Cam’s smile became a grin.
“True. If I may borrow your shower?”
“Sure. I’ll even lend you clean shorts.”
“You are most gracious.”
Gene snorted. Cam slid off him and stood, moving only a little stiffly, and let Gene up.
“Are you really okay?” Gene asked. “That wasn’t too much? Your chest, your hand…”
“I’m healing well. I need only a little more rest.”
Gene found he was hiding his stump behind his back. With an effort he relaxed. Not like Cam hadn’t seen it, felt it, after Gene had shed the long-sleeved shirt. Not like Cam didn’t know perfectly well that Gene was maimed.
Cam shed his shorts and black pants and then stalked toward Gene, naked and graceful. “Show me your arm.”
Gene gritted his teeth and held it out. With long graceful fingers, Cam traced the end of the bone, the neat surgical scars. “How did this happen?”
Swinging wide to avoid the car that was blowing off the stop-sign. Losing control of the Harley. That one moment of suspension, of flight, feeling the incredible swoop of being airborne even as some part of him was jibbering in terror. And then the incredible, blinding pain as he took the force of landing on his right hand.
“A motorcycle accident.”
Cam kissed the scar lightly. “I promise, I can help, although…Gene, a pledge from a fae is never as simple as it sounds. I cannot change my nature. And I was angry when we sealed the bargain.”
Gene yanked his arm away. “Doesn’t matter. I don’t expect anything anyway. Go get clean.”
Cam hesitated and then headed for the bathroom. Gene detoured to his bedroom to fetch boxers and sweats. He tossed them in the bathroom door as the sound of the water came on. He went back and made the bed while he was at it, and picked up the room a bit. He paused back at the kitchen sink to wash himself up, although Cam had sucked him pretty clean. Magic tongue. He zipped and buttoned with a hand that was shaking just a little.
His chair still faced the window. Outside the moon was lower now, silhouetting the trees and dropping the lawn below into velvet shadow. Gene dropped back into his seat. Midsummer’s Night.
There had been a reason he had been flying down that road that night without watching out for drunken fools. A reason that his reflexes hid been too little, too late. A reason why, even as he left contact with the Harley he was almost eager, ready, courting death. Because in his pocket the crackle of paper had reminded him of the news, a letter from a mutual friend, arrived just that morning and two weeks late in coming. Don’t know if you heard… Sergeant Bryan Mendelson, KIA June 7th, 2007. So sorry, Gene…
Midsummer’s Night he had lost Bryan, lost his arm, lost his music career, almost lost his mind. And every year since then he had made it through this night in a drunken stupor, one minute at a time, grateful for any swath of time he could lose to the blur and the buzz of the alcohol. Grimly determined not to give in to the temptation to commemorate those losses in a more fatal way.
Behind him, the water in the shower spattered on the tiles, the pattern of sound changing as the man in there moved. If Gene closed his eyes he could almost imagine it was Bryan, that last time on leave.
“You dumb shit, Bryan, I told you if you enlisted you’d end up being sent overseas to some Godforsaken desert for years.”
“No kidding. That goes with the territory. We both knew that. Two more years and then I’m out. And I’ll have money and benefits and job skills in this fucking economy.”
“Yeah, well for you the economy will be the only thing that’s fucking for the next two years.”
“I might be back before then. Anyway it’s the same for you.”
“Oh, really, Bry? You think I’m going to be faithful while you’re away?”
And Bryan’s kiss, sweet and warm and open, the water of the shower running down between them, over Bryan’s lips where they brushed Gene’s. “Yeah, Gene, baby. I know you will.”
And he had been, until that Midsummer’s Night…
A hand touched his bare shoulder. “What are you thinking about, Gene?”
He jumped. “God, you walk quietly. Someone should put a bell on you.”
Cam smirked. “I’d like to see you try.” He sobered a little. “You look sad. Do you wish to talk about it?”
Gene winced and nodded toward the couch. “That nightmare sounded scary. Want to talk about it?”
Cam gave him a wry grin. “I will if you will? No. But I also wish to lie down some more, and that settee isn’t the most comfortable thing I’ve slept on.”
“Sorry if I don’t have goose-down for your highness.”
“I’m not a prince.” Cam brushed a hand down Gene’s arm. “You have a bed?”
“Hell, yes.” A minute ago Gene would have said he couldn’t get interested again for hours, but just the touch of Cam’s hand generated some very definite…interest. “You just got clean. You looking to get dirty again so soon?”
“Sleep first, get dirty afterward?”
“I could do that.” Gene hadn’t slept the night with anyone since…since, but having arms around him tonight was suddenly more appealing that that stark landscape of trees and shadows. He led the way to the bedroom and turned down the clean sheets. They both stripped, dropping their clothes on the two chairs.
Gene looked at Cam in the dim light. The fae looked the way touch had promised through linen and silk. Long, lean lines of hard muscle, tight thighs, small taut ass, acres of smooth skin with no hair anywhere, not even on his groin. And a beautiful cock, soft and small now, nestled between his thighs, but already swelling just a little as Cam became aware of Gene’s scrutiny.
“You are beautiful,” Gene said flatly.
“You would not curdle cream yourself.”
Gene blinked. “Is that good?”
Cam laughed. “Very good. Come to bed, Gene.”
It was strange, sliding under the sheets with sex a future possibility and not an urgent need. They moved together awkwardly, finding their way into a loose spoon, with Gene’s ass pressed back against Cam’s thigh, and Cam’s arm over his ribs. Gene rubbed his cheek into the pillow, getting comfortable. They lay together, breathing in the gentle darkness. “This is odd,” Gene murmured. “Just sharing a bed. I may not know much about fai…the fae. But nothing I’ve read says they like to cuddle.”
“We often don’t.” Cam’s breath drifted over his skin. “We are a proud people, and scorn to show weakness. And most of us are…not kind. Cuddling is out of our usual repertoire.”
“And yet here you are.”
“Yes, well…if I wasn’t still healing, we would be screwing again.”
“And then there is the fact that I am not like most of us, anymore.”
“What do you mean?” When Cam said nothing, Gene stroked the muscular arm across his chest, and pressed Cam’s long-fingered hand closer over his heart. “You are so sexy, so gorgeous, and yet you don’t use it the way a lot of guys would. You waited for me to say yes. You didn’t just assume.”
Cam sighed. Eventually, under the stroke of Gene’s fingers, he murmured, “Don’t. Don’t be too kind to me. Don’t imagine you grow fond.”
“What? Why not?”
“I crave it. You must know, I’m storing up every moment of it. But when I go, I will be gone. And I won’t be back.”
Gene’s hand stilled. “Never?”
“Unless you wish to wait forty-nine years for me.”
“You said that before. Forty-nine years. Why so long?”
Gene listened to Cam breathe, until he was sure no answer was coming. But then Cam said, “I am bound. I serve at my Lady’s will, seven times seven years. And then one night is my own, to live as I choose, go where I will, replenish body and spirit for the next term of my service.”
“Jesus, she only lets you off the chain one night every forty-nine years? That’s not a job, that’s slavery. You need a union, Cam.” Gene deliberately kept his voice light, and felt Cam’s breath hitch between laughter and tears.
“Verily. Although going on strike against Queen Mab would be a very short-lived gesture.”
“And how many times do you have to do this?”
“Until she tires of me, and releases me from my bargain.”
“Crap.” Gene pressed back against Cam, giving him the whole length of skin contact in the cool Seattle night. “Is that likely to happen?”
Gene felt Cam’s shrug against his shoulder blades. “It has not so far. I have learned not to speculate.”
“How many rounds have you done?”
“Ten. This is my tenth night of freedom.
“Four hundred and ninety fucking years!”
“Four hundred and ninety non-fucking years, for the most part. Although there was one period when my Lady decided I was of most use pleasuring those she wished to reward.”
Gene rolled over and pulled the fae into a one-armed hug. “Cam. Holy God!”
“Not much holy about it.” But Cam’s hands on his back gentled him. “Now, now, Gene, ‘tis not so bad. Since the first few years, she has not thought of me much, and there have been no more such demands, and no more torture. I believe she keeps me bound only because she does not wish to give up any advantage, or release any tool that may yet prove useful. And indeed, I gained many a valuable skill in my period as a body servant.”
“Don’t.” Gene pushed him away to look into those amazing blue eyes. “Don’t joke about being raped.”
“Gene, sweetling.” Cam pushed a lock of Gene’s hair out of his eyes. “”Twas not rape. Things are different with us. She is my queen and she demanded nothing of me that I could not bear to do. And when we can heal any wound but an iron blade to the heart itself, then all kinds of hurts are not taken so seriously.”
Gene looked into those ocean eyes, trying to understand. Did Cam really not care so much, or was he just stoic. “Cam? What the hell did you do to earn that kind of punishment?”
“’Twas not punishment. It was a bargain. I traded my freedom for something I valued more.”
“More than having a life?”
“I have a life, if somewhat circumscribed. And it was another life I bought from my queen with my choice.”
Cam’s eyes suddenly paled, like ice across the surface. “Ah, no, mortal, that’s not a tale for you.”
“Well, fuck me for caring.”
“Ah, now I should apologize, but my kind are not known for that.” Cam kissed him lightly. “Bad enough I will leave you, I would not have you care too much for me. Consider me a heartless and secretive bastard who deserves his fate. ‘Twill be better.”
“I don’t understand.” Gene could feel tears prickling his eyes.
“Indeed, I should never have told you even that much. But a little sympathy is sweet. I feel close to you. If you are beginning to feel the same, I do not want you looking for me round every dark corner when I’m gone, wondering if I might someday reappear.” Cam leaned in and kissed him again warmly. “We have tonight. Tonight to heal, and make love, and make memories. My memories will carry me through my next forty-nine years, as the memories of soaring above a forest on the wings of an eagle on my last free night do. Yours to maybe help you move on from the thing that set you crying before a darkened window.”
“Fuck you,” Gene said, kissing him back harder. “I wasn’t crying.”
“Perhaps not.” Cam deepened the kiss, his hands beginning to roam over Gene’s body. “Grieving then. Looking back and not forward.”
Gene bit Cam’s shoulder hard, above the small pink line that remained of a knife-wound to the chest. “How could you tell?”
“I’m brilliant.” Cam laughed as Gene bit him again, lower and harder. “Ah, my pretty boy, you want to get rough?”
“I’m not a boy.” Gene rolled onto Cam and pinned his hips between his thighs, flattening one supple wrist against the mattress. That was where having only one hand sucked, because Cam did some kind of judo thing and it was Gene who was pinned this time, with both elbows clamped in Cam’s long fingers.
Cam brushed a kiss over his lips. “No you are not a boy. You are a man, and a good one, and very desirable in bed, and I want to come inside you.”
For a moment Gene clutched. He hadn’t done that since Bryan, hadn’t wanted to. But he couldn’t deny some part of him had missed it. And this wasn’t like cheating on Bryan with some other man. This was a fae creature who could take him and possess him and then walk away. Cam was looking questioningly into his eyes.
“Yes.” Gene’s voice felt hoarse and unused. “Yes, please.”
“”Twill be pleasure indeed.”
Cam took him slowly, gently, as if they had forever and not just one night. He splayed Gene open on his knees and stroked him, hands light and skillful. Cam’s fingers brushed every inch of Gene’s body, winding trails of heat over cock and balls, down his taint and around his entrance. There was lube in the bedside drawer and Cam used a lot of it, slicking Gene to the point of whimpering before ever dipping a fingertip inside. And then he took his own sweet time, finger-fucking Gene until he was open and begging wordlessly.
Finally he slid out from under Gene and raised him, pressing Gene’s thighs back with his shoulders. “Ready, sweetling?”
If there had been room for anything but want in Gene’s brain, he would have been embarrassed by the needy sound he made then. Cam braced himself with one arm and guided his erect cock to Gene’s sensitized ass. Gene groaned as the man above him leaned in, sliding inch by constricted inch inside him. A drop of sweat from Cam’s forehead dropped on Gene’s mouth and he licked the salt taste off his lips. “Hey, you sweat.”
“Ah, goddess, yes, sweetling. Sweat, bleed, want, need, come.” Cam slammed home, buried balls-deep inside Gene. He flexed his hips, slowly, a long tight drag and plunge. Gradually, the motion got faster. The thick strike of flesh on skin mingled with the harsh gasps of their breathing. Gene reached up and buried his fingers in the hard muscle of Cam’s hip, urging him on. With his stump, he brushed the long sweat-soaked hair out of Cam’s eyes. He never did that, never touched a lover with that ugliness, but tonight it didn’t matter. Here and now with Cam there was only this spiral of pleasure, winding them both higher.
“So close,” Cam whispered, eyes burning. “So close, Gene. Come for me. I want to see you come underneath me, with my tool deep inside you.”
Cam shifted his balance to brace on one arm again, and reached a hand to Gene’s cock. Strokes like fire ran up Gene’s length, and around his throbbing crown.
“Oh, God. Oh, holy God! Cam!” Gene tipped over the edge into electric space, every nerve fizzing with the intensity of his climax. He spurted, creaming Cam’s hand and his chest and his own lips. Over the taste and smell and sounds of his own body, he heard Cam cry out.
“Ah! So beautiful! So beautiful.” And then Cam’s weight came down on him and they slid downhill into darkness.
Eventually they had to separate, and untangle, and deal with the sticky aftermath. Gene realized they had barebacked. He’d never done that, even with Bryan. For a moment he panicked, wondering if he was some sort of gullible fool who’d just fucked a naked stranger. But the rough line of healing scar, already smaller on Cam’s chest, was reassurance.
Still he said tentatively, “Do you ever…have you ever worried about, you know, catching something from a human? Like diseases?”
“No.” Cam sounded sleepy. “We do not fall ill in the human way.” After a moment he gave Gene a kiss. “Do not worry. If you were a woman, there is a small chance you could become with child from this. But for you, there is no risk, nothing to fear.”
Gene decided to take his word for it. He was limp and tired and sated, and relaxed in a way he had not been for longer than he could remember. Since before Bryan ever enlisted, back when they were kids and the world was new. He rolled over and pushed back against Cam’s body. “Now what? Do we have time for a little nap.”
“Yes, sweetling. Sleep now. I will be here a little longer. And in the morning I will keep my bargain and heal you.”
“Don’t care about that,” Gene said. He was surprised to find that was true, although only because for all Cam’s wonders there was simply no way Gene believed he was getting his amputated hand back. Impossible, and therefore not to be thought of. Think of something better. “You’ll wake me before you go? Maybe time for one more round?” He was so tired, but he wanted all of this man that he could have.
Cam pressed a kiss to his shoulder blade. “Don’t worry about it. Sleep now.”
Gene was going deep into the darkness before it occurred to him in his last coherent thought that Cam hadn’t really promised…
Morning sun through the crack in the curtains woke Gene. He squinted and rolled over. The other side of the bed was empty.
Of course it was empty. Gene held still, to keep the hangover at bay, and tried to think. He’d had a long, weird, sweet dream about finding a man who was definitely his kind of fairy. Gene smirked.
That was the first time he’d slept on Midsummer’s Night in four years. Maybe he was finally getting healthy, coming to terms with his life as it now was. Maybe he would get up and do something productive, like looking for a better job than sales help in a hardware store. Maybe he would paint the house. Maybe he would find a man to pound his ass the way his dream lover had last night, instead of dreaming about Bry every night.
Gene rolled again and sat up and realized two things. For a dream lover, that fairy had left Gene with one hell of a well-fucked feeling to his ass. And when he’d pushed up on the bed, he’d done it with both arms.
For a long time he just sat there frozen, alternately clenching his ass and flexing the fingers of his right hand. One felt as real as the other. Both felt as real as every shaky breath he took, as real as the throbbing effect of too many beers in his temple, as real as the trickle of sweat down his back, and the stickiness of other fluids under him.
Finally he said out loud, “You barebacked with a fairy and he gave you back your arm.” It sounded just as ridiculous out loud as in his head. And yet he had an odd image of Cam glaring at him from behind a fall of ink-black hair and saying, “Call me a fairy again and I’ll break your new arm.” He choked something that wasn’t quite a laugh.
Eventually he had to get up. Had to go pee, and hold his dick with his new right hand, which felt just like it always had. He stared at himself in his mirror. Tall, skinny brown-haired guy with two normal healthy arms. Tall, naked brown-haired guy with a smear of cum crusted down his leg.
He got in the shower. The warm water raised the scent of Cam from his skin, something spicy and green and not quite tame. He cleaned himself, and in the dim light behind the shower curtain inspected the arm. It was his arm. Not some new replacement. There was the mole with two hairs in it that Bry always called his witch’s wart. And the thin white line of the scar from falling off the fence Bry dared him to walk in tenth grade. His arm, back where it belonged.
He went into the kitchen, dressed in a pair of sweats. On the counter, written in tiny, neat cursive on the back of a coupon, was a note.
I kept my bargain, as well as the magic would let me. It is your own arm, and it will not wither, or fail you, or strangle you in your sleep, or any of the horrors you might think of. But it is not perfect. I offered you your heart’s desire, and there were two thoughts in your mind. And you chose this one, and in the choosing made the other one impossible. The magic gives and takes, in equal balance. For that I am sorry.
I will think of you often, and hoard memories of you to myself. And yet I will have a life without you. As you must have a life without me. If this night we have exorcised some ghost for you, and opened up a path to the future, then I am glad and you are repaid for your kindness to a stranger.
Live well, find joy, and think of me only seldom.
Gene sat in the kitchen chair that still looked out on his quiet garden. The sunlight bathed his lawn in brightness, and the shadows under the trees were cool and deep. Cam was gone, back to whatever life he could make in servitude to his queen. Gene would have charged after and rescued him, if there had been any place to start. But there wasn’t.
His life was changed now. Gene raised his arm, flexing, touching his fingertips. It wasn’t strange. It felt real, felt right, like coming home. But he couldn’t let anyone know.
He would have to move. He could wear a leather glove for a while, pretend his hand was the prosthesis that he hated but had forced himself to sometimes use. But someday he would mess that up and in any case, he had his hand back. He wasn’t keeping it covered with a glove forever.
So he would move, find a new job, new friends. Very little hardship there. The job was a dead end, his friends only drinking buddies. There was no family left, and the few real friends he’d once had he had driven away with his snarling self-pity in the aftermath of losing Bryan.
He would miss this house. This place had been his refuge and his sanctuary. The peace of the green sward around it had kept him sane when his sanity had been really precarious day to day. But for a new life, a two-handed life, he could move. Still he sat in the kitchen chair and looked out the window, because he knew there was one part of Cam’s note he was avoiding. One piece that didn’t promise roses and cupcakes. He knew what else he had thought of, besides his arm, in that moment of heart’s desire. And God help him, it hadn’t been Bryan.
Gene got up out of his chair and went into the bedroom. At the back of the closet, behind some boxes and a heap of winter clothes, the old battered case waited. He hauled it out and popped the latches, stiff with four years’ dust.
She sat in the case, waiting for him. He had put every dime he owned into this guitar at the age of twenty-three. Back when he’d had a band and dreams and that vision of going places in his eyes. Before Bryan lost his job and joined up. Before the band fell apart. Before.
He lifted the guitar out and set it on his knees. For a long moment he just ran his fingers over it. He touched each fret, tested the slack in the strings, stroked the beautiful curves of her. And then he tried to tune her.
An hour later he had to give it up. He could hear the sounds in his mind. He could practically feel the strings vibrating in just the right pitch, but each time he tried, the music ran away from his hands. He tuned her up when he wanted to go down, he picked the wrong string. He missed the frets entirely. By the time he had broken every spare string he owned, most of his fingertips were bleeding. And a chord strummed across those strings still sounded like a cat-fight in a henhouse.
His music was gone.
The music, the joy of creation, that had been his second wish. The arm first, for all of its reasons. And only after that to play his music again. And in granting his first desire, somehow Cam’s magic had destroyed the second. Before, with a pick clamped in his prosthesis, he had been able to play. Not able to pick the complex lines of melody that had been his love and his trademark, but he could manage a few chords.
Back when he’d packed the guitar away he’d thought bitterly that playing half-way was worse than not playing at all. Now he knew different. This was the true loss. No music was possible from his fingers now. He could feel the truth of that. Even plucking a single string sounded wrong, sounded thin or sharp. This wonderful new hand had been bought at the cost of any chance of playing music again.
“Fuck you, Cam! God damn it!” He didn’t realize he was yelling, until the words bounced off the walls, thick with pain. “Enough. I want to wake up now, damn you. Don’t do this!”
His right hand clenched into a fist. He pounded on his knee until leg and hand both ached. They both felt equally real. “Fuck.” He bit his tongue, tasting blood, and stared at that hand.
He hadn’t realized before this moment that it had lurked there in the back of his mind. Someday he would play again like he had before, be the musician he had been, get a real life back. He choked a sob. What had he been thinking? That they would turn him into the bionic man? Better, stronger, able to pick multiple strings at a single gesture? God, had he just been marking time waiting for a fucking impossible miracle?
And now he had his miracle but not the music. He could feel the finality of that. He might not know much about magic. Hell, he didn’t believe in magic, even with his new hand cradled against his chest. And yet he could feel in the marrow of his bones the finality of that door closing. ‘No. This is not for you anymore.’
Even his old hand couldn’t begin to shape correctly on the strings any more. It was over. Impossible. Thinking about playing was like standing at the top of a cliff, thinking about jumping off and flying. He could picture it, but it was… Just. Not. Possible. Well, unless you were Cam, apparently. Goddamn magical bastard. If he’d enjoyed spending his last night off the chain forty-nine years ago as a fucking airborne eagle, why had he come here to turn Gene’s life upside down this time? Couldn’t he have gone swimming with the dolphins or something?
Gene opened and closed his sore hand on his knee. If he had the chance, would he give it back? This miracle he had dreamed of over and over at night, all the times he woke wondering if somehow it was true, that he was still whole. And all the mornings he’d reached out and seen the truncated truth of his life. Today that miracle was true. Would he give that up to get his music back?
If Cam came in here and said, “Okay, I can put it back the way it was, no hand but the remnants of music running through you,” would he do that? For the sake of one good hand on the strings again?
Gene opened his sore fingers and ran the sensitive tip of his index finger over the denim on his knee, over the slick wood of the guitar’s neck, over the grooved length of one remaining string. Touch, pain, sensation, movement. He remembered the feel of Cam’s skin, the slip of Cam’s hair, and the fingers of both his hands curled in response. Would he truly give that back again to play power cords with a pick held in a dead hook clamped to his arm? Face the ugliness of scars and stump, the ache of phantom limb, the blinding pain he still got when he struck that stump on something the wrong way?
Gently, he slacked all the remaining strings. Somehow, when he wasn’t trying to play them, his fingers could do that. He laid the guitar tenderly in her case, and closed it. Then he went to the bathroom and soaked his fingertips in peroxide until the bleeding stopped. He slid the leather glove over his right hand, so as not to forget.
He dressed to go out in silence, waiting until he was ready, awake and armored in his favorite clothes to turn toward the radio. He usually listened to the jazz station in the mornings, letting the weave and play of music from piano and sax pull him forward into his day. He needed that, needed the foundation of music touching his heart and soul, like he needed breath, to give meaning to life. His new hand in its concealing glove shook, as he reached over and turned on the volume.
While the announcer spoke, babbling on about the upcoming song, Gene held his breath, waiting in heart-pounding panic. Because he could stand losing his playing, however much it might hurt, but if he had lost the ability to hear the sounds of music altogether? For that he would cut off his fucking arm himself.
Then the music began. After the first two notes, he breathed again. He could still hear it. Cam’s double-edged magic might have taken his ability to make music, but not his ability to hear it. He could still unwind the sounds, pick out melody and harmony, dissonance and counterpoint. He had lost something important, in the theft of that skill from his own hands. But if he was honest, nothing that he hadn’t lost, or given up on, four years before. Till the end of the song, he stood and listened with his eyes closed. Music washed over him.
When it ended, he opened his eyes and with his good right hand he took the neatly-penned note up off the counter. “Yeah, Cam. You fairy types, you are such hard-asses.” He could almost hear the man grinding his teeth.
He would find a house that was near the sea, Gene thought. He wanted to look at the ocean when it was blue, so blue that the depth was beyond perceiving. He wanted to see the light dance across little waves as they ran before the wind. He wanted to gaze at starlight reflecting on the water. He reached in the trash and pulled out a fine white shirt, torn and stained with blood. “Yeah, Cam,” he repeated, running his renewed fingers over the slippery fabric of one clean cuff. “I’ll think of you, now and then.”
Cambrion was struck by how much, and yet how essentially little, the world had changed in the time he’d just spent Underhill. For those prisoned like Cam, the changing ways of the human world filtered down only in the tales and songs of those more free. On the last Midsummer’s Eve but two, near a century past now, stepping across the barrier had been like leaping off a cliff, from a world that had been green and growing in the year of their lord 1913, to concrete and steel in 1962. He’d abandoned the world of men for eagle wings, in shuddering revulsion. The next change to 2011 had been a much smaller one. Well, other than the small miscalculation that had ended with a knife in his chest. And this time the differences were surface things.
Different fashions on the people walking by, in fabrics with a slickness and shimmer that was almost magical. Different lights, thinner and fewer than last time, with a subliminal flicker that offended his eyes. Different cars on the road, most of them oddly silent and free of the tang of gasoline.
He’d walked slowly, following the guidance of the spell, watching this new world unfold. He’d found it oddly the same and yet in small degrees different. Except for the familiar green ’54 pickup parked under a gossamer fabric shroud outside this cedar-shingled home above the cliff. That was completely unchanged. Cam wadded up the old grey sweat-pants he’d used as a search talisman, and stuck them behind a tree. Then he headed for the house and let himself silently in a sliding window. Something beeped at him and he silenced it with a simple spell.
Cam stood just inside the house with his head cocked, listening. There were two patterns of breathing in the bedroom toward the back of the house. Neither matched the one locked in Cam’s memories. He padded noiselessly down the hall. The bedroom door was ajar.
The bed was a large one. Two men lay sprawled on it, hands touching but bodies slightly separated in the muggy heat of Midsummer’s Night. Gene was still tall, but heavier now through the chest and middle, carrying a little extra weight. At seventy-seven, the years had been kind to him. His hair was still a tangle of brown, just threaded with grey. His face bore wrinkles, but they were marks of laughter as well as tears. Signs of a life fully lived. He snored a little as he breathed, as older men will.
The man beside him in the bed was a little younger, a little slimmer, with toned muscles going stringy under the weight of years. His hair was dark, perhaps black, in the dim of the bedroom. His skin was fair, and almost hairless.
Cam looked around, letting his eyes go to cat’s eyes in the night to see better. There were pictures on the shelves and on the wall. A younger Gene, reaching back through time to become the man Cam remembered, with his arms around a slim, Eurasian boy with skin like milk. On one ledge, a small screen hummed, flickering through a dozen silent views in which the men clowned and laughed and played and aged together. A lot of years were on display there, in captured moments. There were a few shots of one man or the other alone, and some with friends, now smiling, now pensive.
One still-photo near the door showed a young Gene, doing a handstand, pure joy on his face. Cam reached for it, looking with hungry eyes at those two healthy arms. He had done that. He had. Here was something he had healed and not broken.
For forty nine years he had wondered. He’d regretted the cowardice that had made him flee and not stay to see Gene’s awakening. The magic was a capricious thing, guided by him but not controlled. He had laid his hand on that scarred stump of Gene’s arm in the pre-dawn murk, and let the spell go free. He’d seen a hand reform, and felt, inexorable as a death, the draining of music from it. And he’d not stayed to watch Gene awaken to his gain and his sacrifice. Then for the next two score and nine years Cam had cursed himself as a fool, though whether for still caring or for leaving too soon he’d not been sure.
But here was proof at last. Here was a home and a lover and smile lines as plentiful as frown lines on Gene’s aged face. And the photos on the walls. The loss of his music had not blighted Gene’s life, if this gallery of the years was anything to go by.
Cam hesitated. He had brought a token in fair exchange. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the sprig of herbs, tied with a golden ribbon. He could take the photo and leave in its place this little circle of green. Rosemary for remembrance. But as he reached for the picture the younger man in the bed moved restlessly, and whimpered a little. Cam turned to look at the two humans. Without really waking, Gene shifted over and pulled the other man against him. In two strong arms, he hugged his lover to his chest, and they both quieted.
Cam thought about it. What would it mean to Gene to wake and find that circlet there? He was sure Gene knew the date. He was not a man who would forget. So what would it do to this couple, to plant a remembrance of the past down in front of them? To say, I was here, but you’d given up on me so I left. Like a neglected child, jumping up and down. Notice me. Remember me.
Regretfully, Cam let his hand fall away from the picture on the wall. In his fist, he crushed the sprigs of rosemary until the scent perfumed the air. On the bed Gene shifted, breathing faster. Cam glided forward, with every ounce of stealth he possessed. The kiss he laid on Gene’s greying hair wouldn’t have lifted one scale from a butterfly’s wing. Farewell, sweetling. Live long, love, laugh. Live and die without me.
Cam turned and stepped out the open French doors to the balcony. From there it was an easy drop to the sloping lawn. He stalked across the moon-bright grass, and into the shadows of the trees that would hide him. He opened his fist and dropped the rosemary to the grass. It had been a foolish conceit anyway. Mortals were so short-lived. He shook his head at his own sentiment in coming here.
Never before had he let himself look back from one seventh night to the last. He never would again. Memories he must have, to store up and pull out in dark moments. But he should have learned by now not to prize them too highly. It had been those eyes, he thought, so much like Ander’s eyes, back when they both stood before Queen Mab and traded Ander’s life for Cam’s lifetime. Eyes like Ander’s had brought him back here, but Gene was a mortal and not his long lost lover. He was a fool. It was time to move on.
Carefully he took a breath and let go of all the moments of memory that he had hoarded for forty-nine years. Memories of the texture of Gene’s hair against his cheek. The heat of his body, the smell of his skin, the sounds he made when he came. Memories most of all of the man’s eyes, dark with suspicion, sheened with unshed tears, bright with passion. He let it all slip through his mind. One night. He released that night to the winds. It had been sustenance for him, but for Gene it had been a moment in time, nothing more. And he had been well repaid. The next time Cam left Queen Mab’s court, Gene would be dead.
Cambrion looked at the sky and calculated. He still had hours of freedom. Time enough to have some new fun, to refill the empty space in his mind, for his next term of servitude. Silently he slipped between the trees toward the road.
In the bedroom above, the breeze swirled the curtains. A hint of rosemary, green and spicy, lingered in Gene’s dreams. He roused, half awaking, feeling a slow heat rise in his body. He reached out, and his fingers slid over soft thin skin and lean muscle. His fingers. For a moment he woke further, an odd ache in his throat of loss and of wonder. He closed both his hands gently on warm flesh.
His husband’s quiet breathing didn’t change at his touch. Gene moved closer, reveling in the cool relief of the breeze. He curled himself more tightly around the beloved man in his arms. With two good hands he stroked up Tom’s arms and then dropped a light kiss on the back of Tom’s neck. The elusive scent of rosemary faded, replaced by the familiar scent of Tom’s skin. Gene willed himself to relax. Time enough in the morning to wake Tom in sunlight and do something about that desire. Nights were for dreaming.