.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 9
When I had composed myself and was thinking somewhat rationally again, I refused once more to shirk my duties as Ghen had urged me do. I didn't want to rest or sleep, I couldn't face that time alone, lying there in bed just torturing myself by the mere act of thinking about what I would not force out of my head.
As I followed Ghen back inside, I silently wondered if that was how Archer felt as well. Did he take his medicine? Was he sleeping? Or was he in that room upstairs, sitting on the edge of the bed, quietly lost in his own thoughts?
Josif stood behind the main bar as we came in, reading something to fill his down time. He looked up at the both of us, eyes lingering on me. Had he heard? Of course he had. I was gently guided towards him.
"Wait here," Ghen said, "I'll get something hot to drink."
Still sniffling, I leaned against the bar, avoiding eye contact with Josif as he folded up his papers and set them aside. He leaned both elbows on the bar and inclined his head towards me.
"Micah?" he said softly.
Like a cowed dog I forced my gaze to him. Josif reached out and lifted my chin a bit, giving me a fine little smile. "You'll get through this," he said with uncharacteristic softness.
I gave him a little nod, allowing myself to be comforted a little by his words. Encouragement coming from Josif meant so much that I almost believed him. I could only guess that Ghen had related my story to him, but right then I didn't care who knew. I inclined my head into the cup of his hand and his palm was warm against my cheek. I thought of the strange places comfort could come from when one was so desperate for it.
Ghen came back in with a mug of steaming something and handed it carefully to me. As I took a sip, I saw him glance at Josif; their exchange was not lost on me, even in the state I was in. I began to think again on the state of their relationship, and how they weren't fighting for once. I sipped my coffee again, lost in my thoughts, thankfully, on things such as these and not the real matter at hand.
"Micah, please," Ghen begged again. "Go get some rest. No one expects you to work today." Next to him, Josif nodded in agreement.
But I shook my head and pushed myself away from the bar. "I'll be in the den," I said. At Ghen's inclination to protest I added, "I need to keep busy."
With a sigh he let me have my way. He looked at Josif once more as I turned to walk away and again, I caught their exchange. I disappeared around the corner of the bar and stared down the hallway to the den. The hall was long and interminable, and how so very short was my life. I leaned against the wall for a moment without the will to go on. Behind me I could still hear their voices, and I covertly peered around the doorframe back into the room.
Ghen had leaned his elbows on the bar and dropped his head onto his arms for a moment. Josif ruffled his hair.
"I'm so tired," Ghen said, lifting his head again. "And I'm worried."
"Nothing ever worries you," Josif answered, his voice for once sounding sincere, gentle.
Ghen gave him a slightly reprimanding look for that little jab anyway, but subsided again. "This does," he said. "I want to call Hunter back but Micah doesn't. He's hurting and I don't know what to do, I've never been very good at things like this."
Josif covered Ghen's hand with his own where it lay on the bar. Ghen looked at the gesture but said nothing.
"Call him back, lily," the bartender said. "It's his business to be here and take care of things. You know how well he can do that."
Ghen nodded slowly. "Yes, but is it the right thing to do?"
A few more moments passed silently between them.
"I'm on tonight," Josif said after a moment, "but I can get Dray to take the bar if you'd like some company." With his other hand he brushed back Ghen's bangs from his eyes.
There was no hint of playfulness in Josif's voice, nor in the way he gazed into my dear friend's eyes. He really meant it, to be only a comfort and nothing else. I prayed I was reading him right. After a moment, I knew that I had by the way Ghen inclined his head and said softly, "Ok."
My numb heart fluttered as I leaned back against the wall that separated the hall from the bar. I closed my eyes and prayed quietly that this was really happening. In all this sorrow, it would bring me happiness to know that my dearest friend here would someday perhaps get what he'd wanted and needed for so long, but would never have admitted. Not sex, as Ghen never had a shortage of that, but not just Josif either. I wanted for him the kind of love and affection he so often scoffed at; the kind I had known twice in my life. In the end, I realized that more than anything I needed someone here to be happy, even if it wasn't me.
Silently, I made my way to the den and sat in Hunter's familiar chair. I thought about how it was the same one he'd been sitting in when I'd first laid eyes on him. The same one he'd been sitting in when I had stumbled in here and asked him to be my teacher on that now infamous first night.
I laid my head on the desk and sighed. I suddenly wanted Hunter to be here, I needed him to be here and 'take care of things' as Josif had put it. Why I had refused his coming home early before, I couldn't think now, besides that on some primitive level it had seemed wrong to me that Archer and Hunter should be here under one roof. Now, a day later, things were so much more complicated than before. Archer had nowhere to go, and I wanted him nowhere but here. But what would Hunter want?
My sorrow welled again but I controlled it to a lump in the back of my throat. I squeezed my eyes shut. I wanted my lover.
I raised my head at Archer's voice and found him standing in the doorway. He was dressed in some clothing Ghen must have had found and put in his room the night before, but it hung loosely from him in a style he wasn't familiar with. It was black, a fitting color, but offset the warm hues of his own colors with stark emptiness, a ridiculous jest.
"You should be resting," I said, hastily wiping my eyes. Hesitantly, he walked in and looked around, surely recognizing the den where together we'd first encountered his distant cousin. His movements were stiff as he eased himself into the chair that sat across from the desk; I wondered if he was in pain.
"Have you taken your medicine?"
Archer shook his head, which told me he'd already guessed the vial's true purpose. "I don't want to sleep." He absently gestured to his head. "You know. Dreams."
I watched him. He appeared distracted and spacey, but grief washes each of us differently. I'd hardly expected him to even feel like speaking at all, so I supposed this was better. But the dark circles under his eyes spoke of long, sleepless hours, of how that was affecting his sanity as much as what he had been through itself. He was not well; it frightened me.
"Micah," he said after a few moments. "I shouldn't have come here like this, barging in last night like I did. There's no excuse for disrupting your life like this-"
"You can't be thinking that?" I said, wide-eyed. What was going through his mind to think that we would have grown so apart that I could ever consider him an imposition? A burden? I watched his face a little longer and realized that I had forgotten a little about what kind of man he was. A farmer, inherently self-sufficient. He had never wanted to rely on anyone, grew his own food, plowed his own fields, built his own home and made his own decisions. What must it be like to have to rely on someone else for shelter and, dare I say, support, now that he had nowhere to go?
I decided to jump ahead of him, try to save him having to ask what he had no other choice but to. "I want you to stay here," I said, trying to take on a bit of Hunter's authoritarian air; professional-like so that he would take me seriously. I got up and came round the desk nearer to him and leaned back against it in Hunter's ultimate ‘I know best' position. "Whatever I have is yours," I said softly, "whatever you need. Please, just ask." Perhaps now I can pay you back for what you gave me.
He'd bowed his head and I saw the muscle jump in his jaw. "That medicine, it's supposed to make me sleep, isn't it?"
Slowly I nodded. "I'd like you to take it," I said, surprising myself with the maturity in my voice. He looked up at me; perhaps he was just noting it as well. "You need to be able to sleep, and this will help with the pain."
"It's not my body that keeps me awake." He dropped his gaze a bit. There was a long pause while I waited for him to go on, a lump rising in my throat. I knew that eventually after the grief would come a moment of letting the ache go and he could continue with his life. Would he speak of it now? Should he? Being out of his head as he was, I wondered if revisiting those memories would be any kind of help at all for him at this point, or if it would just delay the time when he could finally talk from his heart, not his heartache. This was too soon.
I knelt beside his chair and covered his calloused hand that sat on his knee. There was a time when I could never have attempted such a gesture. He looked down at our hands, much as Ghen had a few moments before.
"Are you hungry? Let me get you something to eat and we can go back up. We can talk there if you want." I just wanted him to lie down again, to sleep and recuperate.
"I don't want to talk," he said softly. His amber eyes were on me, shadowed and weary. "But…" I stared; I'd never seen him hesitate like this before. "…But you will still come up? Stay a little while?"
My heart warmed in my chest and the feeling spread. Was his apology for the imposition an excuse to come down to me? Was he lonely? The warmth spread into the smile on my face, so reckless that he turned his eyes away, embarrassed.
"Of course," I said quickly. "You only need to ask; I'll stay as long as you like."
Indeed, he hadn't wanted to talk. I fetched him some bread and cheese from the kitchens, but he ate very little. Though he took his medicine as I'd asked without argument, there was no getting more food in him. I could only succeed in making him promise to eat more later, after he'd slept. Afterwards he stared up at the ceiling for a little while until his lids were visibly heavy. I pulled the covers further up his chest, partly to keep him warm but mostly to hide the bluish bruising I couldn't bear to look at.
"Micah," he said, eyes closed, in a voice just on the edge of consciousness.
"Hullo?" I whispered.
But there was no answer. He was asleep finally.
So it went on for almost a week, a week in which it did nothing but rain. Archer stayed in his room mostly, in a drug-induced slumber. He continued to refuse much of the food offered. I followed on with my duties as best I could while not attending to him, though still driving myself to distraction with worry. Sleep is good for him, I kept telling myself. His wounds were beginning to heal. Soon the sun would shine again, and he would wake one day to throw open the curtains and he would be all red and gold once more. Ah, youthful hope springs eternal, even in the face of dark rain and mourning.
I was still quite content to give him the benefit of the doubt that he would pull through anything. But then, one night, he was seen wandering the lower bar at an ungodly hour for most people but our shiny, raucous late-nighters. In disbelief I had to look twice after a glance up from the bar, behind which I was helping Josif arrange freshly washed glasses from an earlier rush. There he stood in the rain-brought chill of the upper hall, chin lifted a little, beautiful still in a disheveled sort of way he gazed around, dressed in a loose black shirt whose wide collar showed a triangle of smooth flesh and the sharp protrusions of his collarbone. The drawstring pants were loose as well and dragged the floor behind his bare heels. He seemed to be waiting for something, but it was as if even he didn't know what. He absentmindedly looked around. Whispers were already spreading.
I slid up to him and leaned close. His lips were pale. "Archer-" His eyes turned to me, only faintly surprised to see me suddenly beside him, whereas a person in his right mind might have jumped out of his skin. "Archer, come with me, please, come." His hands were freezing cold, and I realized that I was pleading with him.
He gave easily enough to my grip on his arm and I was able to get him back upstairs. His whole body had begun to convulse with shivers. How long had he been up and around? My own hands were shaking in frustration and worry. This medicine had to go. And if it wasn't the medicine, then God help both of us.
"You can't go wandering around like that in this chill!" I tutted gently, arranging his heavy limbs before pulling the covers up again. "You could catch cold, or stumble and get hurt, or…" My voice trailed off, he wasn't listening anyway.
Slowly, his shivers began to subside and I sighed quietly. "You promised you would take better care of yourself," I whispered. Archer looked doggedly at me. I arranged the blanket snugly under his chin. "If you're cold, use a blanket. If you're hungry, eat something. And if you're lonely," his eyes lashed to mine, and I took a silent breath,"call for me. I will be here."
"Stay then," he said, in a voice that sounded long unused. His eyes were dark and vacant, his face pale and somnolent. It was a request I could no more have refused than if he were on his very deathbed. I lay down next to him on the coverlet, intending to stay only a bit longer until he fell back asleep.
When I awoke, it was because Ghen was shaking my shoulder.
"Hunter's home," he whispered, glancing warily at Archer, who still slept. "I thought you might come down to meet him." Instead of him finding you here, his eyes said.
I stood and straightened my clothes. Outside it was still dark, but there were no muted sounds of a night crowd, they must all be gone by now. How long had I been here? Ghen, looking quite weary himself, smoothed my hair, still gazing down at Archer. When he looked at me I could see his worry.
"It's all right," I said with a little smile.
Hunter was in the study when I found him. Once in the room, I could feel his frustration before he even spoke. When he heard the door close behind me, he dropped the papers he'd been shuffling and turned to face me.
"So what's happened, Micah?" he said.
"Why are you angry?" I asked quietly.
He ran a hand through wet, dark hair. He looked weary and damp and muddy with road-travel; he must have just arrived back. "Why didn't you send for me when he came? Why did I only just find out now?"
Ghen must have waited after all, as I'd told him to. In all honesty, I had completely forgotten to ask whether or not he'd sent word to my lover, something I should have done myself anyway. Archer's sanity aside, the fact that I could miss something like that attested to how out of it I was myself.
"I'm sorry," I said softly. "I wasn't sure whether or not this was important enough to disturb your trip-"
"Of course it was," he snapped. I was stung speechless; I'd never heard him so irritated before and couldn't rightly tell where it was coming from. But when his shoulders slumped a little, I read his regret at his own tone. He took a breath. When he spoke again, his voice was gentle.
"Ghen's told me what happened," he said slowly. "I only wish I would have been here, that's all. I know they were close to you." Still, where he should have crossed the distance between us to take me in his arms, he stayed where he was. My own irritation, born of the stress I'd been bearing alone, flared over something so petty, at how stand-offish he could still be in realizing how one should act with a lover, having been a bachelor for so long.
"I could manage it," I snapped back. "So I'm sorry you had to come back here and be put so out of sorts. Go have a bath and something to eat, we can talk later when you're cleaned up. I'm going to bed." I turned to go.
Hunter caught my arm, I hadn't even heard him move. In the instant that he'd turned me round and drew me against him I was already in helpless tears. My cold fingers clutched his damp shirt to the point of nearly pulling it off his shoulder and he petted my hair and whispered how sorry he was in my ear. This was more like it, held by him again; I hadn't realized how much I'd wanted him back during the haze of the past days. I cried as hard as I had that first time in the kitchens when Ghen had found me. My knees felt like they would give but I didn't want to move, even to ease their fatigue. He's here, he's here, was all I could think.
"Come upstairs," Hunter said softly, slipping an arm around my waist and guiding me out.
The next morning, which was only a few hours later in fact, Hunter was downstairs before I'd woken. Somewhat surprised he wouldn't take the day to rest, I stumbled out of bed and rubbed my sore eyes. I felt numb inside. With my lover back, a good cry and a few hours' sleep I had expected to wake with some feeling of hope, but still, I felt nothing. Only a dreary misery, matched by the gray rain outside our windows. There was still a great weight on my shoulders, this feeling of everlasting irresolution. I watched the rain outside for several minutes after I'd dressed, wondering where this melancholy had come from.
Archer was in bed when I went to check on him, staring up at the ceiling. He barely acknowledged my question of his hunger with the slightest shake of his head. When I lifted the bed sheets to peer at his wound, he tilted his head a little to me, that was all.
I looked at the little bottle of medicine that sat on the bedside table. His bruises were healing; they had passed their terrible-looking dark stage and were beginning to fade to yellow around the edges. Too, the wound to his head was healing well and steadily. He didn't need that drug anymore, did he? I pocketed the vile and headed downstairs.
Ghen intercepted me before I got to the lower bar by pulling me off to the side corridor by my elbow.
"How are things?" he asked a bit insincerely, glancing to the open door behind which most of our friends were still eating breakfast.
"I'm all right. What's wrong?"
"And Hunter? You two all right?" He glanced again over his shoulder.
"Ghen, what's going on?"
My friend's eyes softened and he leaned closer. "Only that your lover had a word or three at me this morning. Nothing terrible like, but kind of that seething quiet he gets. Seems he expected me to be some sort of minion for him. Says I should have sent word to him the minute something ‘out of the ordinary' happened here."
For Hunter to expect one of his senior staff to report something like that was not wholly irregular, but I still bristled despite myself. Ghen saw this and shushed me before I'd even let the hasty words of a hurt pride out of my mouth.
"All I mean by telling you this, my dear, is that he's worried. Really worried about your man being here. So be easy on him, all right? He's not used to jealousy, and I don't want you to hurt him just because you can. He'll have a long way to fall if you let him."
Ghen's words seared into my mind. I had already felt the duplicity of my situation; it was that irresolution. That wavering feeling, back and forth, back and forth. If asked, would I leave my lover for Archer? Of course not, the conscious mind would reply. But would it reply the same were it asked the same question in a different way- Would I refuse Archer? My only salvation to those questions, which swirled around in my head like a little cyclone, was that one situation was far more likely to come up than the other. The power of choice lay in my grasp, at least I had control over something. Archer would not beseech me, he was still the man I had fallen in love with years ago, unchanged in that respect, and I was safe. I spared a thought for Aislinn, her loss still an ache in my chest, but now also sodden in guilt for even thinking such things.
Yet Archer's safety from me and vice versa didn't lay as soft comfort for my conscious as far as Hunter was concerned. Ghen had been wise to warn me of his insecurity, for, apart from the night of his arrival, he hid it from me extremely well and I might never have known it was there. In the few days that followed he was nothing but support for me, and a generous host for our invalid, whose coming off his drug proved to be more painful than his actual wounds. A fever rose, and a cold sweat. The physician was called and pronounced that for such a reaction, there must have been gross misuse of the amount he'd prescribed. He looked at the vial I produced and shook his head.
"Too much, far too much is gone for this amount of time. You only need a drop or two of the tincture at most a day. I'm surprised he's even coherent."
When the situation was explained to him, in only slight detail as we stood in the hushed corridor outside Archer's room, he seemed to forgive his convictions a bit.
"Eases the pain, it does," he said, stretching his old back. "There's a reason I have to keep this locked up at my practicum. Too much unhappiness in the world." He was ruefully shaking his head as he turned to leave. "Too much unhappiness."
Back at Archer's bedside, he lazily looked up at me as I adjusted the cooling cloth on his forehead. His eyes were weary, but at least they were his, all amber and gold, and very much aware. He would mend and come back to himself, the physician had said, in a few days.
A few days. I realized now that I had been given blessed little time to handle the initial crisis without having to worry too much about Archer but for his physical being and comforts. For these past weeks he'd been a quiet patient, voiceless, virtually motionless, and I had been able to keep him locked up as such in my mind. What would happen now? When he began to be up and about, back to himself, sentient and responsive? When presented with him again, my Archer, tall and colorful as I remembered, then I feared my true trial would begin and those questions, those simple, once so easy to answer questions, would become resounding demands I could give no answer to at all.
As expected, Archer's clouded head gave way to clearer skies in a few days time. He began to eat again, much to all of our relief, and gained his strength back quickly. With Hunter back I had considerable more time to spend with him, which I felt important now that he was in the land of the living once more. Without the drug to ease his memories, I feared greatly that left alone too long he would lapse back into them. The questions for now were pushed to the far recesses of my mind.
"Is it still raining?" he asked, propped up on pillows and carefully eating some tomato soup concoction Ghen said his grandmamma swore by. I opened the curtains to allow in the light, even if it was that of a cloudy, misty mid-morning.
"It won't forever," I said, looking out. "The rainy season is almost over, then you'll really see something. There's a raised garden in the courtyard there with a tree that blooms orange- of course it's all bare sticks right now. And in the back yards there'll be so much greenery, and flowers, lots of flowers. They were supposed to be roses, but Ghen spoilt that years ago with some mix of seeds he got off a street vendor, and they haven't been able to get anything else to take besides those wildflowers. I think they're pretty anyway, better than roses… what is it?"
He'd been watching me rattle on, neglecting a spoonful of soup that wavered precariously over his bowl. "I thought you liked the rainy season," he said softly, taking the spoon into his mouth.
I looked back outside. "Only because it meant we weren't tilling anything." I had meant it as a little jest but I bit my tongue; should I have alluded to our old life?
He stayed quiet, taking a few sips of his soup, but he didn't seem upset. After a few moments, he asked, "Where is Hunter now?"
I stepped away from the window and sat in a chair by the bed. "Downstairs, I suppose. This place always runs so well when he's here. Never a hitch."
"He seems like a good man. Wish I had known him better when we were younger." He'd finished his soup, so I took the bowl from where it rested in his lap and began to dab up the bits that had inevitably spilled on the white coverlet. "Sorry," he said but I only smiled. It wouldn't be my headache to get the stains out. Besides, I found the little drops charming.
Finally I sat back. "How well did you know him?" I'd never had the chance to ask him before; perhaps Archer could shed a little light on the parts of Hunter's past he kept in the dark.
"Not well at all really," he answered. Since the beginning of his recovery, his voice had a particular softness to it, as if every word had great weight. "I only know he was young when he left home, his mother and two sisters, I think. I'd only met him right after his father died, and we had all come to help raise a barn on their homestead. He and I were perhaps fifteen or so."
Fifteen. So Hunter had known what he was by then; he'd been branded at fourteen.
"How is your scar?" Archer asked suddenly, eerily.
"Faded," I said with a smile.
Archer tilted his head, and I felt obliged to show him. After all, I was only wearing linen, not too difficult to raise up and let him see the wound between my shoulder blades he had once tended.
"It's barely raised now," he commented, tracing the pattern with his fingers.
"Micah?" Hunter's voice from the doorway. He was holding a mug of something warm, no doubt a little comfort for his cousin. There were not two; he hadn't expected me to be here.
I stood, letting my shirt slide down into place. The look on my lover's face; if I hadn't known him better I would have missed it, as I hoped Archer did. Off in my mind, like a distant storm, I felt what was to come. As decently as I could I offered excuses and left them together, Hunter offering the hot mug to Archer, who took it distractedly, watching me leave. I went straight to our room. If it was going to happen, it might as well be far away from everyone else. I sat down on our bed and took a deep breath.
"Something you show everyone?" Hunter said, closing the door behind him.
"He only wanted to see how it had changed."
"He wanted to see how you had changed," Hunter mumbled, crossing his arms.
My mouth dropped open. Jealousy was an ugly thing, I knew, I had already wallowed in it enough for my part. But Ghen was right, it was new to Hunter. He hadn't the slightest clue as to what was rational and what was not, nor what he could say that might hurt and what would actually wound.
"He was a married man," I protested, standing up. "He cares for me yes, I won't refute that, but that's where it ends. What more can there be?" I moved towards him, beseechingly, my hand slightly out.
"Men change, Micah," Hunter said calmly. "We've all seen it. He's just as human as the rest of us, and you're no help to him." His eyes raked down my figure and back up again.
My hand dropped to my side. "What is that supposed to mean?"
Hunter didn't answer. He seemed to have grasped the cruelty of his words, but I was stung already.
"I don't understand why you are so angry," I said.
Hunter raked his hands back through his hair. "Don't understand? Are you the only one here who doesn't? You're telling me you don't realize full well that the one man I know can take you away from me is sleeping in your bed right now?"
"You have to trust me," I said softly, echoing the words he'd once said to me. It was unfair, I was talking hypocrisy again. I could perhaps silence my own doubts by allaying his. He looked to be in such pain. So… unhappy.
"I should never have let him stay here-" he was saying, going back to his pacing. His beautiful face was wretchedly angry, so frustrated and confused. What must jealousy and distrust feel like to someone who'd never felt them? Or perhaps, he'd felt them too much? Indeed, what did I know of his life before here? What was he before he became the epitome as far as premium stock went? My own anger and frustration flared, but it suddenly died when I forced myself to think rationally, to realize what lay at the base of his anger. The only reason Hunter was so upset was because the thought of losing me to Archer was very real to him, and very frightening.
"Could you have told him to leave? And then where could he have gone, Hunter?" I asked, trying to keep my voice down. "He once gave me shelter when I had no place to go, or don't you remember that?"
Hunter stopped and looked at me.
I spread my hands, a last ditch effort. "He's the reason I'm here!"
"He'll be the reason you leave."
The softly spoken words hung in the air between us, vivid in my ears as if they were constantly repeated, with no beginning and no end. We stared at one another, and I saw his clear blue eyes were sad, almost resolved to what he thought our fate. There was a knot in my throat and my eyes burned. How could he? How could he say such a thing out loud? When I had been fighting to silence those fears, setting locks upon the tiniest possibility of myself even entertaining such thoughts? He had thrown the doors wide open and it lay strewn about our room. On our clothes, our furniture, our bed. Everything we shared was tainted with this little thing, this little, vile ‘what if'.
I drew myself up in the silence. "I'm going out," I said quietly, and did just that. Perhaps the cruelest thing I've ever done in my life, I left him there alone, without a negation of his words, and without a clue of where to find me.
Of course, it wouldn't have taken a genius to know where to look. Galen's shop was empty, for the rain, and the man himself was on the roof of the metal awning that covered his fires, dripping wet and stripped to the waist. He was hammering something onto the roof. Below, I saw a steady deluge from some hole had doused his fire.
"'ello Duckie!" he shouted over the din of rain on the metal sheets. "Be down in two bits. Go'on inside there, ‘ave sommat'a drink."
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