.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 10
I opened the front door to find the house quite warm inside. He had built the place himself, it consisted of a small hall from the front door that led into the open living area, above which lay a low-ceiling loft where he slept, accessed by a wrought iron and wood stairway. The fireplace was a huge work of stone and tile, something Galen took great pride in, since his father had been a mason and had laid the plans that built such a thing. It tended to make the whole flat somewhat of a hothouse, though the heat had chased out any moisture that would have come in from outside. I myself was chilled through and through as I delicately removed my oilskin draft, trying not to let it drip more water on my somewhat dry underlayers.
I was just reaching to hang it up on a set of iron pegs near the front door when there came a stark, "Who are you?" from behind me.
The voice was a soft sort but a little hard at the edges. The kind that without a face could be taken as either male or female in the lightest of senses. I turned back towards the short hall to find the speaker standing at the other end of it. A boy, a pretty, fresh-faced boy, my first thought was. No. A girl. She was as tall as me, with a short cropped, boyish cut to her chocolate brown hair, which even now the orange room behind her made look somewhat auburn at the edges. Her dark eyes were very large, doe-like, but there did not seem to be a gentle innocence one would expect from them. She was petite, her slender arms were holding a stack of blankets, but their mass could not hide her belly, full and round as it was. Pregnant.
Not many times lately had something caught me so off as this. A thousand and one thoughts ran through my head during the short time it took me to finish hanging my draft up and manage to wipe the bewildered look off my face and replace it with a somewhat strained friendliness. She, however, wasn't trying so hard. Her large dark eyes showed her distrust, I knew then she was one of those apt to be suspicious of people she met, instead of giving folks the benefit of the doubt upon introduction, like normal people did. On top of it all those eyes and short hair still threw me on her gender, though the belly didn't lie. She would have made a beautiful boy.
"Well?" she said.
"I'm sorry, I'm a friend of Galen's. Micah," I muttered, turned off by her impatient tone of voice. But... was it wrong that I still found her attractive on top of it all?
She gave a 'humph' and walked out of view into the main area. I emerged from the hall as well to see the great fire going in the hearth, and the rugs and furs strewn on the floor before it. Galen and I had spent a night here and there on those rugs, a memory that grew starkly incongruous when that girl settled herself down on them, wrapping herself in the blanket she had been carrying.
"May I ask who you are?" I ventured, drawing closer to the warmth but afraid to come too near her. I had a vision of her turning and biting me, like a snake.
"She's with me," came another voice, from behind me, the kitchen. I turned and came face to face with what could have been my rival, had life not carried me off in a different direction. Avery and I had never really spoken before, but I could tell he knew me just as much as I knew him. Some time ago Galen had told him about me and our dallies, I wondered if that was the reason for his cold stare now. In his hands he held two mugs of something steaming. He glided around me and gave one to the woman curled on the floor, who was looking from one to the other of us, her large eyes curious behind their misgivings.
Avery was a little more prepared for our eventual encounter than I was, it would seem. "We meet," he said at length. "Didn't know you were coming over."
Put me on the defensive, would he? My other troubles momentarily forgotten in the face of such a blatant challenge, I was appalled at my gratitude for a diversion. Avery stood an inch or so shorter than I, and I latched onto that as leverage.
"He didn't say you would be here, either," I replied. I looked at the woman. "And he never mentioned you at all." I would never in my life have spoken to a girl like that, especially one I had just met. But something about her told me she was not of a typical type of female, deserving of politeness just because of her sex. I knew I had read her right when the ghost of a smirk whisked across her face.
"I'm Tava," she said, and turned back to the fire, her mug grasped in both hands hovering under her chin.
"Did he forget to cancel an appointment with you?" Avery said, an echo of her smirk on his own lips, blatant as his unsaid words, Coming over to whore?
"'Ello?" Galen had come in, dripping wet and was presently trying to shake as much water from his hair and trousers as he could. When he came into the main area, he stopped dead short and looked at us all, one at a time, quite aware of the atmosphere into which he'd walked, but was helpless to change. Why had he not told me before he had company? I found myself irritated at him, until I realized that he was just as stunned as I. He hadn't known they were here either; they must have come in through the back, which opened up to the next street over.
"Well, isn't this a pretty party?" Avery said. "We come by to visit and here you were expecting company of a different kind. Sorry to have troubled you."
"Oy, it's not like tha'," Galen protested. "'e came for'a cup, jus' like ya, I 'spect." He looked at me hopefully. I read his cue and nodded.
"Of course. But I can come back some other time." In fact, of a sudden I was close to tears again. There was no where else for me to go, and on the dreary road here I had geared myself up to have a good cry and release in the comfort of Galen's strong arms. I wanted nothing more than to go up that hand-carved staircase into the loft above and crawl into his bed, and stay there for days.
"Nay, Micah, don' be like tha' now." A little stab caught me by surprise. He hadn't called me 'Duckie'. "We c'n all 'ava drink, there be plenty o' room."
For the first time, the woman turned and looked at Galen with a particular hardness. "Is he the one from that place?" she asked.
His face looked downtrodden suddenly. "Aye," he said softly. I had heard him downcast before, when Avery was railing on him in the bars, answering with a softened, gentle voice, but here he seemed absolutely crushed by her stare. Who was this woman?
Her eyes had turned to me. She got up with some effort, all three of us watching, by nature too inept at handling a woman, let alone a pregnant one, to know we should offer help. Hell, she might have lashed out at it. She managed on her own and came to stand before me. Her brown eyes peered up into my face, shrewdly reading God-knew what. Then, she handed me her still-full mug.
"Come on, I'm warm enough to get back," she said, pulling the blanket up over her head like a shawl and heading for the back door without waiting.
"No you're not," Avery said, less in protest than a simple statement of fact. She turned and gave him an expectant look, which he visibly conceded to against his will, and moved towards the door. In a moment they were gone, leaving Galen and I looking at each other in an awkwardness we'd never experienced together before.
"Duckie-" he started.
"Why not use my name?" I said cruelly, setting down the mug that girl had bequeathed to me. He of all people was least deserving of malice from me, and here I was ready to give it full-force. I found myself wishing I had been the one to leave, not them, for now I didn't feel like I belonged here either.
"What tis'it?" he asked, coming towards me. My words had not stung him. I backed away from him, and turned away towards the fire. He accepted my wish of distance and remained where he was.
"Who was she?" I asked.
"A friend o' Avery's, come t'live with 'im'a few months back. Donn't ask me how, Duckie, I don' know. Which 'e be fearful protective o'er her tho', and she for 'im. Sommat about 'ow she came ta be in tha' way."
"'In that way'? You mean pregnant?" He nodded. "It's not his?"
In spite of the situation, Galen laughed out loud. "Tha day 'e starts shaggin' women be the day I put on a frock and call meself tha queen of 'em all."
I smiled a little. "They suit each other," I murmured.
"Tha' they do, sure tho'. She be more of'a hard 'un than 'im, puts me righ'in me place at tha'."
So she was protective of Avery as well it would seem. I thought about her eyes, and their reading into me as they did. She had decided to leave me alone here, a grace I could only account to her not being as 'hard' as Galen made her to be. Had she seen something in my face that cried out my case for me?
The thought brought me back to why I was here in the first place, and the desire to be a petulant child left me. Here was my comfort zone, not eight paces from me, watching me with the kindest eyes I'd ever known. Eyes that never hid anything, never lied, and would never betray anything but the truest heartfelt compassion. I didn't feel deserving of their trust. But then again, Galen had never asked anything in return. He would always be strong for someone else, always take the responsibility on himself.
His arms wound around me tightly, and I realized I hadn't even seen him move. Or had I moved to him? It didn't matter. He helped me sink down to the floor, onto those rugs before the fire while in a hiccupping voice, broken with frustration I told him everything up to the moment that had brought me to his door. He listened quietly, stopped me only to wipe my face, or shift his arm to encompass me better. I sank into him, and soon lost account of time, of what I was saying, or of the gentle rumble of his voice. I was unmindful of the crying wretch I had allowed myself to become, how I always needed to seek comfort from someone else. I didn't think about whether or not I had become one, or if it had always been me, from the moment I found myself on Archer's doorstep. I didn't think about how in some respects I had not changed much at all, and whether or not I would ever rid myself of this dependency on stronger shoulders than my own. No, instead, I had fallen asleep.
Somewhere in that time I dozed I felt him move, settle me down comfortably and slide out from under me. I hadn't opened my eyes, for I still hovered between what was reality and what was that hazy, dream-like state only being half awake during the greatest exhaustion can bring one to. His touch even seemed dream-like, as he brushed my hair with his fingertips. I felt the touch of his lips on my face, and heard a voice so soft surely it was part of my dream as well. "What'll ya do, Duckie?" his voice whispered. "Three men in love with'ya. What'll ya do?"
When I woke it was dark outside but the rain continued to patter on the roof. Somewhere on the outside I could hear the gurgling of a side-gutter. I was wrapped comfortably in blankets on a pad by the fire, and from the kitchen area behind me I heard the clinking of cookware. The house smelled of grilled meat, and my stomach, more awake than I, growled in anticipation; I'd not eaten much all day.
Galen, upon seeing me sit up, gave me an easy smile and handed me a plate, heavy with hearty beef and vegetables. I'd never known him to cook, the thought surprised me, but I ate it thankfully. His hair was wet still, oddly, but at least he'd changed his trousers to dry ones. He was still shirtless, and as he sat down beside me with his own plate, his skin glowed a beautiful, flawless bronze. We ate and watched the fire in silence. It had burned itself down some, and the coals and winking ashes mesmerized me a little.
"Ya should know 'e knows where ya are than, Duckie," he said suddenly. "I went 'n told 'im so, so's he wouldn'ta worried." He met my stare a little guiltily. "'S migh'y unfair ta let 'im worry," he said softly.
So that was why his hair was still wet. Afraid of his answer, I asked, "What did you tell him?"
"I told 'im not'ta come 'round, so, but tha' ya was safe 'nough in me digs here. Didn'ta think ya'd like 'im comin' ta fetch ya back afore ya was ready."
"No," I said softly.
Galen was quiet for a moment, then he said, "'e asked me to tell ya sommat, Duckie, sommat impor'ant. But 'e only said, 'Tell 'im tha' I trust 'im.' That be all."
I raised my eyes to his face, my food, the fire, forgotten. He was looking into the flames, an old sadness glazed into his eyes, and though his words concerned me and my own tribulations, I wondered what was really on his mind.
He shook his head and gave me a smile. "It be a 'orrible thing, Duckie. Me 'av'n thoughts like these here."
Any other man might have hesitated, or tried to choose words to ease his own guilt, or the comfort of who he spoke to. But not Galen, he spoke truly what was on his mind with an appalling honesty.
"Jus' tha' with you 'av'n a fight with 'im, I had thoughts o' bein' with ya, Duckie, like we use'ta." He smiled at himself. "Then 'e goes and says sommat like tha', how 'e trusts ya, and I cannet be part o' sommat t'make ya go wrong by 'im."
"I make my own decisions, Galen," I said softly. "You don't have to shoulder that burden for me."
"Aye, I know tha', Duckie. It be jus' with A'vry, ya know, it be rough these last coupl'a weeks with tha' woman 'ere, and t'day 'im 'av'n been 'ere t'read me up'n down. Sometimes I cannet 'elp but think it might'a been a nice thing t' be with you." He dropped his eyes a bit. "It's been a while f'me, ya know."
I had set my plate down at this point, and crawled closer to him. His light hair was lit up into a warm ivory, and it was drying quickly. "How long?"
He smiled up at me, a little embarrassed for the first time. "Oh, weeks'n weeks'n weeks." I knew he had never been with Avery, and I had never thought to ask who else he might have trysted with once I had come to be with Hunter. Back in the times when Galen and I had often taken sport and comfort in each other, I had known him to be of a particularly carnal nature. Not rough or strange tastes like- he was in fact one of the gentlest lovers I had ever known- he just, well, needed it often.
His lips were warm against mine when I pressed close, unthinkingly, and despite his earlier words his hands came up to hold my face. He was right, a horrible thing it was. If there had not been the history between us, if we had only ever been good friends and nothing more, this would not have happened. But here we were, both starved for comfort, and weary of running from the judgment and jealousy of those we cared about.
I pulled away, our lips made a soft, sad sound as they separated. Hunter would not understand that reasoning. Nor Avery, if I were to guess. My lover trusted me, had said that very thing, and I still had not been able to stop myself before a kiss. Galen seemed to have grasped the thought as well, and dropped his head a little. I felt the guilt weighing on him, that he had somehow induced me to betray my lover anyway within an hour of that very man, one he respected, having placed trust in him.
"I am not perfect," I said, touching his cheek. "I sometimes feel like you two make me out to be what I am not." His large eyes caught mine. "But what I am-" I continued
"Ya be beautiful, Duckie," he said with a gentle smile. "An' ya'll figure it out."
At that moment of perfect understanding between us, when we both had laid aside our physical desires to be the mature, responsible young men others had put so much faith into us being, my hand still happened to linger on his cheek, and Avery stumbled in the front door. He looked terrible, as if he had been in a fight, which wasn't surprising given his reputation. There were scuff marks on his knees and his hands were filthy, his face was beginning to show where it would bruise in an hour's time. Despite this, he was quite drunk and primed to fight again it would seem.
"I didn't mean to interrupt," he said, wavering just a little. "No, no, that's a lie." He pulled a half-empty bottle of wine from his wet draft-coat and took a swig from it.
"I should go," I said, dropping my hand and moving to get up.
"Al'right, Duckie," Galen agreed without thinking, and as Avery's eyes widened I saw a look of instant regret cross Galen's face. It was a good thing he still faced me when the expression passed, but then slowly he turned to Avery. Though I'm sure it had been a complete slip of the tongue, he didn't make excuses.
"'Duckie', is it?" the bantam blond spat out. "I didn't know you two were so close. Thought your type never did it face to face-"
"Enough!" The retaliation surprised me. Galen had always been so easygoing that this new vehemence sounded out of place when put with his voice. We had both stood up by now, and they faced each other, like two bucks ready to clash together. But Avery had set the wine down, not looking a bit taken aback at the sudden attitude he was facing.
"Dunno tha' it matters a'tall t'you what 'tis I call 'im."
"Of course it matters!" Avery said shamelessly and I blinked stupidly at him. Surely he knew the double standard he was holding.
"So what now? I'm s'posed to wait 'round for ya to get done drinkin' and soddin' so's I c'n take ya home, jus' ta 'ave tha' woman cut me up'n down?"
"You were the one who said you'd be there for me," Avery snorted. "Isn't that what you told me the day I left home? The day you caught me on the road and begged me to let you come with me?"
Galen just looked at him, shaking his head. His eyes were a mixture of frustration, sadness and even the guilt that Avery still managed to lay on him.
"I meant it sure," Galen said softly. "I still do."
This allayed Avery enough to have him turn his attention to me for a moment. "You can go, you've done enough as it is," he said.
My mouth dropped open to defend myself but Galen stepped in first.
"Donn't talk to 'im like that," he said, "there be no need for't."
"So I suppose it's not his fault? Didn't he seduce you? Don't think that I don't know how they work around there-" The words came out in a sneer because he knew already that Galen had certainly been a willing partner. This, too, he would throw in his face. "But I suppose you went after him, then? I needed you tonight and you were too busy sodding and sucking to be with me like you promised you would-" There were, at the corner of his eyes, hidden almost by the anger in his face, tears he was trying to ignore.
I don't think Galen noticed them, else I don't think he would have grabbed his arms and shaken him so hard that the boy lashed out to hold on. "Be with ya?" he growled. "Be with ya? I donn't even know what that means! Wait on ya? Serve ya? Ya break me heart, Duckie. I love you!"
Avery shook his hands off with a jerk of his body backwards. His pale cheeks had flushed, his intelligent green eyes bright with moisture and anger. "We can't be anything but lovers, then, right? We mean nothing if you don't get to bed me, right?! Is that all you think about? You want to bed me? Well, fine, if that's all I mean to you, then why not?" he cried. To my horror he began stripping his coat off. "Bed me, then! Bed me and leave me alone because I'd never want to see you again-"
"Stop, stop," Galen said, catching him up again. I was beginning to wonder if Avery hadn't gotten more than a beating in a friendly fight. He was nervous, shaking, and his eyes, tears falling now, had a wild look of abuse and violation. Avery slumped against him, his hands clutching Galen's naked shoulders, knuckles scraped and dirty.
"Don't tell me you'll be there when you're not," he sobbed. Galen petted his wet hair and whispered something to him I was not meant to hear. Slowly, numbly, I gathered my discarded shoes, donned my draft from its peg by the door, and left them alone.
The streets were fairly empty, the rain only a drizzle by now, and I made my way home in a short time. The square still had people milling around though, shouting and laughing at how their voices echoed and the Mill itself loomed up, lit warm and inviting. Inside my lover probably charmed his way through his evening guests, and Archer lay up in his room, or sat by the window perhaps. I looked up at the one I knew to be his but it was darkened.
I got through the crowd only slightly accosted by those I knew, urged to stay, drink, sing a song with them. Inside I did not see Hunter anywhere in the bar or in his den. Nor could I find Ghen, and even Josif was not at his bar tonight. There were no familiar faces for me to latch on to, no one to distract me out of myself. Slowly I climbed the stairs to our room, opened it to find Hunter fully dressed on our bed. He was slightly propped up on the pillows, a book tilted onto his chest and his head relaxed back as he dozed. His black hair brushed his cheek, a few strands lay over his jaw, though his neck was revealed by the easy tilt of his head. His shirt was open a bit and I could see his smooth skin, the shadow of a nipple. He breathed so easily and looked so peaceful; who would have known he had retired to his room so troubled he'd had to read to make himself sleep.
I dropped my damp coat on the floor, and the rest of my clothes followed. I felt the need to strip bare completely, even though the room had a chill to it without a fire glowing in the grate. The urge to be completely exposed, for him to see me and only me, as I am, as I ever had been and ever would be was so strong it was moving me to tears, though I controlled them only to a lump in my throat. He had to know, as did I, who I was.
I crawled onto the bed and he woke easily, blinking a bit at the vision of his lover, with whom he had so recently fought, stripped bare and straddling his waist. I took the book from him, and silenced with my eyes any word of protest or otherwise he might have uttered.
"Am I the one you fell in love with?" I asked, unlacing the rest of his shirt, opening it, and resting my hands on his chest.
I could see in him the inherent need to be in control. He wanted to ask what I was doing, where I had been. It had always been in his nature, and here, though feebly, I challenged it. However, his strong sense of diplomacy won out. I was more important than his pride.
"Of course you are," he said.
"Look at me," I urged.
He sat up a bit, gazing into my eyes alone. "I am," he said.
"This is it," I said, holding my arms out. And though my voice trembled a bit it was controlled. "Flaws and all. Insecurities, infidelities, uncertainties. I am not a virgin in white, I am not a housewife devoted to her children and husband, I am not a dog at the heel of its master." I took a short breath. "But neither are you," I whispered.
Hunter's blue eyes gazed up at me, and in them I saw that he had let go of his questioning, that I had his full, undivided attention as perhaps I never had before.
"What I am," I continued. "I am not sure. I am not brave. And I am not perfect."
"Neither am I," he whispered. His hand reached up, touched my face and I saw in him, past the man I had fallen in love with, the human that he was inside. His own imperfections, his own painful past, his need to keep secrets. Our idyllic life together before this, we had only touched the surface of each other, both guilty by the nature of what we were, the reason we both carried scars, to never have delved deeper beyond what we both were comfortable with, to admit that there was someone beneath the surface who had imperfections, who could and would make mistakes. It was an echo of the night he had come to me, of how he had told me most of us had buried those feelings away. It was true, though I had done the same in a different way. I had always relied on someone else to teach me what to feel, to guide me, and comfort me.
"I need you to be sure that you can love me like this," I said softly. "and then I need you to do it."
"Micah." My name whispered past his lips right before they touched mine. I slid the shirt off his shoulders and my cold flesh touched his warmth. His arms came around me and held me tightly against him, so much that I couldn't kiss him for want of breath, and merely held on to him, my hands in his thick hair, smelling it, feeling it run through my fingers. His hands stroked my back, my scar, and mine his.
Soon enough he had shed the rest of his clothing and made love to me with the vigor and drive of a new lover. All that he was, and all that I had never seen in him before he laid bare for me in the moisture in his eyes before he could hide it, tears he could not let fall. I had frightened him more than I had ever had conceived I could, and that in itself frightened me.
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