.. | angelika | chapter 2
The next morning, he awoke to the old cock that crowed from his worn perch on the top fence rail outside the barn, which stood only a little downhill from the house. The sound was familiar and comforting, that old bird had crowed every morning from the same spot for as long as Luca could remember. He sat up, stretched for a few moments, then donned breeches and a shirt and padded out into the house to seek out his guest.
The living area was empty, the fire and blankets cold. It only took a cursory glance throughout the open-laid house to find she was quite gone. A little choke of sadness rose in his throat at the thought that she would leave so quickly and without so much as a by-your-leave, but the emotion quickly settled when, from the corner of his eye he saw her through the window of the scullery. She was a ways from the house, standing at the fence that bounded the upper part of the north field, an area fenced in its entirety all the way up along the western woods to encompass the barn and round the south side of the house, which sat on a little hill of its own. This part of the fence had been built atop the same little hill, so he could see her quite well, wrapped in a dark woolen blanket and leaning on the chest-high top rail.
His approach was virtually silent until he was almost to her, when at the sound of his feet on the soft grass, she made a lazy glance over her shoulder. He joined her at the fence and took in the sight of the field that sloped down below them, like the bottom of a bowl almost completely covered by a hovering morning mist. He could hear birds calling but could not see them, and the occasional bay of one of his three shaggy-haired cows. To their right the sun was beginning to rise over the hazy orchard.
"I missed this," she said suddenly. "How beautiful the land can be in the morning."
He looked at her, standing there with the sun rising behind her, and tried to think of something to say. She was right, it was particularly lovely this morning. He wondered where she had been that she had been missing something like this, something he tended to take for granted every day.
Aurel heaved a great sigh beside him and closed her eyes. She had that look again, that sad, private look that told him she was mourning something, or perhaps someone. He had felt the look on himself, mourning his mother, and in the past seen it on his mother's face, perhaps mourning the loss of her sanity. He longed to ask her if there was something he could do, but he had the distinct feeling that there was nothing, nothing at all he could do or say. It made him feel somewhat lacking, powerless. The feeling didn't confuse him, he was not the type to question his own emotions, nor lie to himself in refusing to believe he was very drawn to her. He had a great wish to protect her from whatever she had been through, or the memory of it at least. Whether or not Aurel was aware of how he was increasingly captivated by her, he did not know. She might understandably be too wrapped up in her own thoughts to take much notice of anyone outside of them, for the time being at least.
"Luca," she said suddenly. It was difficult to see her face; it was but a shadow before the rising sun, outlined in a halo of honey-gold hair that lifted around her head in a light breeze. "Will you let me stay here a while?"
His nod was quick, it made her giggle, the first sound of mirth from her. She settled back to look over the field.
"I'll help work of course," she said. "Just teach me what to do, I'd love to get to know this place."
"Here? Are you sure you wouldn't rather work in town? I have to go down everyday anyway, and I'm sure we could find you something-"
"No. I like it here, and this place needs someone more than that town does I'm sure. Your apples are sagging from your trees, your flowerbeds are overgrown, and your house is dark and empty."
"You said you liked the house," he mumbled.
"I do, when there are people in it." Her smile was as light as her fingers on his arm. They both looked back at the cottage and Luca was forced to admit that even in the sunlight it did look empty and dark from here, closed off and without light from within. It looked much as it did every evening he'd come home since his mother had died.
"You go do your work in the town, but I'd rather stay away from that place," Aurel said, as they both turned back towards the house.
"I don't like to be around people," she answered softly. "I've been too separated from them, it makes me feel like a bit of an outcast."
Luca remembered how the crowd had reacted to her, and the dogs. Even Dunnant's brick-laid, pea-sized intuition had picked up something odd about her. She must feel it too then. He wondered if his mother had as well, and that was why she preferred the solitude of the keep to the sociality of town.
They reached the house and climbed the few steps up to the wooden porch that wrapped the length of the cottage. Aurel opened the heavy front door wide and left it there. Then she went inside and opened all the windows she could find. In moments the house was filled with the fresh smell of dew and grass, fetched in by a gentle breeze wafting through the place, bringing with it even the scent of apples and the distant pine of the woods.
Aurel gave him a smile. "It will be a nice home to come home to, you'll see."
So it was. Luca, who used to enjoy his job in the town for its safety from the monotony of being home alone, found himself anxious at the end of each day to get back there. For that moment when he would come up the back road at the tip of twilight and see the house lit up warm and inviting, windows and doors open until the last moment before the nighttime chill set in. She had swept off the porch and dragged his father's hand-carved chairs outside and here she apparently sat for some time during the days, snapping peas she'd plucked from the garden, peeling potatoes, scarifying seeds she planned on planting in the flower garden.
A week went by, then two, and then soon it was as if she'd always been there. The house was cleaned up, the gardens began to look as they had before his mother's illness, and every day he had two or three barrels of apples ready to be sold in town. She had also begun experimenting with cooking, and though the process was slow, her efforts were charming, if not always mostly edible. Day by day the meals got a little better though, of course helped along by little jars of seasonings and herbs he brought home at first to cover, and later to enhance a taste. He had never known meals to be more than basic meat and greens and maybe some bread and cheese, whereas now they were feasts for two, and both went to bed with full, sated stomachs. Aurel began to gain a little weight in the meantime and lost some of her bony look, and though it was apparent she would always be very slight of build, she was no longer unhealthy looking.
She continued to sleep before the fire at night, refusing to take his mother's room and certainly refusing to force him from his own. She only said she preferred the light of the fire when she went to sleep. It was just one of a few little quirks that made themselves known about her as time went on. Another was her refusal of his buying her clothes.
"I'm fine wearing your old things," she said one evening as they shared some toasted bread and sat on the front porch, watching the sun set over the woods.
"But wouldn't you want something newer? Some girls' clothing?"
"No, I prefer these. But if you insist, then get me more breeches and shirts, would you? Now that you mention it these are a little worn."
Luca complied and shopped for her, bringing home several things in the way of a youth's clothing, things he could have worn himself, and often did. Though he had to admit at first he'd had a great desire to see her in something laced up and sweet, something that would play on her pretty face and slender shoulders, he found that his clothing did suit her very much, oddly enough. Perhaps it was that once her bruises and wounds began to heal and thusly she moved more and more easily, he found she really had very little of a girl's figure to speak of but for a slight rounding of hips. In fact, within a few weeks after her face and body had healed completely, there were moments when his mind would refuse to believe she was a girl at all. Those times in the evening when, spotting him from the back porch on the road home from town she would agilely trot down the hill and greet him at the front gate. Others when she would race the other way towards the barn and chase off the old rooster, whose crowing she had no patience for, as she was always up an hour before the old bird anyway. She climbed into the apple trees to reach the high fruit sweetened by the sun, had learned to chop wood like a true woodsman, and apparently toiled in the vegetable gardens during the day when he was gone, such were the state of her long hands sometimes in the evening.
But even so, she remained modest in front of him. She staunchly closed the door when she bathed, covered herself demurely when a blanket revealed her bare leg, and kept a distance from him so that they almost never touched unless she initiated it. Luca didn't mind, for though he found himself more and more attracted to her, what was supposed to come next he was quite incapable of bringing about. How one was supposed to pursue and flatter a girl he had almost no clue, and often found himself at a loss of response if she put a question or comment to him with a particular look or posture, or even sometimes with just her voice, which never did lose its soft, husky tone. In this way he preferred that she was quite unlike his concept of girls, and found himself liking her most when she was boyish and independent.
Of her past she never spoke, but he had begun to piece together little hints of what her experience had left behind. She was not particularly fond of the nighttime, which he attributed to a general fear of the darkness. At first light she was up and about, determined to make the most of what sunlight could be squeezed from the day. She refused to have contact with people but for him, and was very timid and distrustful the few times he was able to lure her into town. In turn she had not been exaggerating when she said she felt like an outcast- they treated her like one. Not to her face so much, but Luca got into the habit of watching their eyes as they passed. Animals as well reacted almost as if she were not human. Dogs barked at her behind their fences and ignored the people who passed after, cats bolted down alleys and under buildings, and even tamed scavenging rats that beset the town in the heat of the wet fall air made a scant appearance when they walked by.
"You'd think I was carrying the plague," Aurel wryly joked one day as they packed their cart in preparation to head home.
"Mmm, carrying something," Luca agreed, only half listening. His mind was preoccupied with the lead rope Karo had snapped, the third one since last moon, and still the mule stood as if tied. "Silly animal." He mumbled, untying its remnants and climbing up into the seat. It was only then that he realized Aurel was staring at him with an intent, intelligent look, one he had really never seen on her before. Whereas she was sweet-faced and innocent most of the time, this sharp look stopped him for a moment.
"Why did you say that?"
"Say what? Silly animal? Because he goes out of his way to get free and then just stands here. What's the point besides costing six shills for a lead?"
Her face softened after a moment and she burst into laughter. Bewildered, he hissed ‘walk on' to the mule and they made their way home, Aurel giggling to herself for a good portion of the way but shrugging him off when he asked what she had found so funny.
"Nothing, nothing. Sometimes I think I'm the silly animal, that's all."
Fall cooled finally and began to give way to winter. The rest of the apples had fallen, rotten and wasted. The fields lost their rich verdant glaze, and the sun stayed hidden behind clouds for days on end. Aurel became withdrawn and moody without it, and she shivered almost constantly, more affected by the cold than Luca would have expected with all the various blankets and coats she covered herself with throughout the day. Luca tried as best he could to cheer her, though he suspected that much of her unhappiness stemmed from the inside, and not so much from the lack of sunshine. At times she even looked a bit ill, though she insisted that she felt fine.
"Just the chill, that's all," she said one evening, heaped into a pile of blankets before the grate. Luca had warmed and buttered her favorite herb bread in their brick oven and sat beside her with it. He himself didn't feel much of a chill, though the walk home had certainly warmed him through. Tomorrow was a tenthday, and he had been waiting for a day to spend with her. He reclined back, quite content that for a while at least, he could relax and watch her eat her bread.
Aurel did so, lost in thought it seemed for a few moments until she noticed him watching her. Her face lost its gloom for the first time in weeks.
"I knew someone like you once," she said, looking down at him. "From back home."
A little stab of jealousy caught him, a strange feeling. "Hmm," was all he could think of to say.
She had read him well enough, and gave a coquettish smile as she chewed. "He was handsome and gentle too. And sweet on me."
"Are you sweet on me, Luca?"
His elbow almost buckled beneath him in surprise at her question, so directly had she spoken to him, and so expectantly was she waiting for an equally direct answer. Some vague shyness kept him from giving one, but he knew he had to say something, and in the relatively short time they had known each other she had certainly learned he was no good at lying, so he didn't even try.
"I don't see why you even have to ask," he mumbled instead, looking away from her eyes.
"You don't have to go into town tomorrow, do you? Lets go for a walk instead."
He sat up, grateful that she had decided to change the subject. "Walk where?"
She looked out the open front door that faced the distant woods, from here only a dark line in the twilight. "There," she said. "I've found lots of trails, and a beautiful hidden lake. I want to show it to you."
It was a moment when nothing had ever been clearer in Luca's mind. He watched her profile while she watched the fire, only one of many such moments they had shared, but now it was different. He would kiss her. To inch closer was a little clumsy, but he did so as best he could. Aurel turned her face to him again, looking a little curious, as if what he was feeling had actually been the farthest thing from her mind.
Luca leaned in, his hand rested lightly on her arm, and his lips brushed hers. Aurel didn't move for a moment, and by then he'd drawn away, unsure of whether or not he should continue, or really how to. But her face was softened, her eyes half-closed and she was leaning towards him, as if unaware of it. He leaned in again, this time he would do it better.
"Luca," she breathed, her hand coming up to his chest to stop him. "We shouldn't."
The rejection was more devastating than he'd thought it would be, only because he had really not considered it. "Why?"
"Because you don't know everything about me."
She looked shy and he found it more charming than any other look she had. He reached up to touch her cheek, pull her close. "Isn't that all right? You don't know everything about me either-"
Aurel pulled away, the shyness turning to something else. She looked shamed, her eyes cast away. "What there is to know about you and what there is to know about me are two different things," she said.
Luca felt his rosy lust fading and became serious too. "Then tell me."
"I can't." She put her hands to her face.
"No!" she cried suddenly, standing up and clutching the blankets around her. "No, I won't. Half of it you wouldn't believe and the other half is too terrible to speak of." Her voice had grown more hoarse with emotion and she looked close to tears. She stood silent for a few breaths; he saw her chest heaving with restrained emotion until the words started tumbling out. "You don't know how much I only want to be here, normal, back to an old life! But it's been so long for me, so long that I can't do it. It won't ever happen, they told me it wouldn't. Things will never be like they used to, and it's my fault. My fault-" The tears had dripped down her cheeks and she was working herself up into a frenzy so quickly that Luca stood and tried to catch her. He was bewildered and anxious- where had all this come from? She was a nervous wreck in front of him, shying away from his touch until he caught her wrists. She twisted away, crying out for him to let her go.
"Please!" she pleaded, "don't touch me!"
As if burned, Luca released his hold and she backed away, hugging herself, looking wretched and pitiful. Where was the girl he had known a few moments ago? What had sparked this to come out from inside of her? Some hidden memories? What had he done?
"Stop. Please," he said gently. "Sit down again, here, I won't touch you, I promise." The words hurt to say as he patted the blankets where they'd both been sitting.
But Aurel remained where she was. "Don't you see, Luca?" she whispered. "I want you to."
A warmth spread in his chest and he felt his cheeks flush. "I don't understand," he managed to say.
Aurel remained quiet for a few more moments. Then, she sniffed. Her brief tears had stopped, and her face had begun to hold some measure of inner resignation. She'd made a decision and committed herself to it, and he could only wait for her courage to build. The fire crackled loudly in the silence that seemed to stretch on endlessly.
Suddenly, she threw off the blankets from her shoulders, and to his horror her hands went to unlace the loose tunic she wore. For her to resolve something like this, to just give herself to him was more humiliation than he could bear, and he leapt up and tried to stop her hands.
"No-" he said, but she backed away and gestured for him to sit again. Luca sank back down as she'd bid him, unable to do more than numbly stare.
The tunic slid off her narrow shoulders as it unlaced, and as she reached to lift it up he caught a glimpse of her belly, a brief tantalizing hint before she pulled the thing off and dropped it to the floor. Her flesh was smooth, flawless in the firelight, and before he had even registered the fact that he had already known her to be slight of build- he had always thought her curves simply too subtle to be seen- she had unlaced her short-breeches as well and kicked them away. But there were no curves at all. Only a slight rounding of hips as he'd first noticed, but after that, nothing. Flat chest, a youth's chest, and lower, down the flat belly and between long thighs, a youth's genitalia.
She was a he.
Luca fell back from his knees to his haunches. He looked up and down the bared body before him, unable to believe, though in the back of his mind something clicked into sense- the voice, those certain mannerisms, the overall aspect he had been missing, and why, when Aurel had been at his least feminine moments that Luca had felt most at ease. Now that the truth was standing there shivering before him he could not understand how by the grace of the sky above he had missed it, and why he was not as surprised, or as disgusted, as he felt he should be.
Aurel stood quietly, as if this humiliation was a punishment he had long resolved himself to bear. His head was lowered, eyes cast down, and with his long hair falling over one shoulder, he seemed only a beautiful youth now, quite formed as a male should be, though perhaps a bit too pretty in the face so that it was only his long hair and loose clothing that had hidden the lie.
The silence went on and Luca watched him quiver. Cold? Mortification? He stood up again, picked up the blanket Aurel had tossed away and handed it back to him. The other took it gratefully and wrapped himself up again. The room had grown chilly, a fault of the unattended fire, so Luca went to stir it and give himself a moment to think. He knew Aurel was waiting on him, that it was his turn to speak now, but the right words wouldn't come. His head was full of a mixture of emotions, and among them a strange relief.
"Say something," Aurel said softly, finally. The same voice as Luca had always heard, but so different, so obviously male that for all the thoughts running through his mind, embarrassment at his own naivety came up the strongest.
He turned. "Why? Why pretend so?"
Aurel flinched, dropped his eyes again. "I never pretended," he answered softly. "You took me for a girl, even though I was half-naked when we met."
"Everyone did. You could have corrected me," Luca said, his anger rising a little, not at the lie, but at having been lied to.
"I could have," Aurel conceded. "But I didn't know I would stay here. And then it got more and more difficult to tell you the truth."
"You didn't trust me."
Aurel cast his dark eyes to his face. "I told you the first day I couldn't trust anybody after-" he paused. Despite his insisting he had not been acting the part, Luca noticed that his voice and manner had come up stronger, now having left behind the guise of a charming, timid girl. "Where I was before... I was made to keep up this role."
He had been forced to live as a girl? "But, you're not where you used to be, why keep up it now? Didn't you just say you wanted to be ‘normal' again?"
Aurel's head snapped up at the word. "It's not that easy," he insisted. "I can't make you see, you don't know-"
"Then tell me!" Luca yelled, his frustration finally getting the best of him. He had never in his life raised his voice in anger, and the vehemence in it shocked both of them. He instantly regretted it in the face of Aurel's flinch and then his disbelieving stare. After a moment Aurel tossed off the blanket from his shoulders and began to dress himself again. With a glare somewhat softened by the moisture still in his eyes, he angrily strode past Luca and began to gather the few belongings he had collected during their time together and pile them into one of the mantles spread before the fire. Luca remained where he was, watching, not quite realizing what he was doing at first, and it was only when Aurel began to tie the small pack together that he saw; the boy was leaving, here, in the middle of the night, angry and hurt. Somehow he had betrayed a trust that had been understood between them. He would never have demanded such a thing from Aurel as a girl, in fact he had made it a resolute point not to for consideration of whatever anguish it might bring to her. Why he had assumed such a breach would not affect Aurel as a boy, he didn't know. Along that line Luca knew that same trust should have carried through, he knew Aurel had kept his secret for his own reasons, and that the memories of whatever he had been through which had forced him to keep such a thing would hurt just as much, possibly more. And finally, as he watched Aurel lift the pack onto his shoulder and make for the door he felt a shame at his own narrow-mindedness. After all, Aurel had only revealed himself now because he didn't wish to mislead Luca any further, now that something had built between them.
"Don't you see, Luca? I want you to."
He caught Aurel's arm as he reached the top of the porch steps. "Wait, you don't have to go-"
"Yes I do," the other said. "It's better this way." He twisted his arm slightly, a small test to see how well Luca had hold of him, and to see if he would let go.
But Luca didn't relax his grip. "I'm sorry. I was angry," he said hastily. "But it's not my affair to know. Please, I want you to stay."
Aurel relaxed and his wrist hung from the tether of Luca's arm. "Even as I am?" he whispered.
"As you are." Luca gazed into his pretty face, willing his eyes to show a sincerity that initially had surprised him. Being alone in this place again... he didn't want to think of it.
The other boy turned to face him, his visage lit up by the firelight behind Luca. "I am the same person," he said. "Everything I have said to you up to this point, nothing of that was deceit."
"I know," he said quickly. "I don't feel deceived now. I understand." He didn't really, but he said so anyway.
Aurel's eyes searched his. After a moment, he said softly, "I will stay but only if you promise me. Promise not to ask questions about it, now or in the future."
Luca felt a cold lump in his stomach. The future? "You mean there is more?" he asked quietly.
Aurel's face softened at his apprehension. "Maybe," he said, so softly it was almost inaudible. He took a step back onto the porch and reached a tentative hand out to touch Luca's face. "Please don't make that face. I am as you see me now. That's all."
His hand was warm, and though it was a gesture Aurel had made in the past, it felt different now. The cold dread had been replaced by something else, a current that smoldered in his belly and spread through his chest all the way to the flush in his face. He had been somewhat charmed by Aurel as the mysterious, shy girl, but now... That chaste infatuation had taken a turn. Luca recognized it; it was as plain as day to him the difference of these two feelings, now that he had felt both.
He looked at Aurel's mouth, lips slightly parted as he waited for a response. He had kissed that mouth already, was this feeling a wish to do more? The thought confused him, left him speechless. Aurel picked up his discarded pack and led him back inside the cottage. He pulled Luca to settle before the fire again.
"Have you never considered it?" Aurel said softly. "Another boy?"
Luca shook his head. He had heard of it of course, but often with sniggers and jeers. His own experience had been so limited that the concept had always seemed so terribly far away, like the view of a mountain whose distance is immeasurable. He only knew himself, had always been so blessedly unaware of how his non-existent desires had been staunched before their growth by worry for his homestead and sick mother. Still, even in the face of this new yearning, he had never been one to lie about his own feelings, such was the depth of his naivety.
"I have always liked other boys," Aurel said gently. "But we need not talk of it now if you like."
Luca followed his gaze into the grate. He was tired, physically and mentally, and these few moments before the heat had suddenly brought his exhaustion to the forefront of his mind. He wondered if Aurel too was weary, his ordeal tonight had surely been more trying than Luca's.
"I am glad you know now," Aurel said suddenly, turning back to him. "Truly."
"I think I might have always known somehow," Luca admitted, both to Aurel and himself. They sat in silence for a while longer.
"Aurel?" Luca's voice seemed to stir the other out of some private reverie. "Will there ever be a day when you'll tell me everything?" His question was soft, hesitant.
Aurel's answer was quiet in return. "What I fear is that there will come a day," he sighed, "when I'll have to."
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