.. | the waterstreet mill | chapter 12
I watched him walk away until he was out of sight, for those long drawn out minutes on the verge of sprinting to catch him and grab him by the arm. But then what? That remained a nebulous, unfilled space of time. He was gone, and I was aware of being quite alone in the lane.
My hand rested on the short gate that enclosed a lower fence around most of the property, mostly to keep stray dogs and children away from the dangerous fires. I peered into the forge around the far side of the house and found it dank. Tools were strewn about, as if patiently waiting for their next use, and yet the shop was a mess in itself, I had never seen it in such disarray that it actually looked abandoned beyond its years.
I knocked on the side door of the house but really expected no answer. Checking the handle I found it locked. I stepped back and surveyed the house again, as if I would find some answer up in its rafters, with my mind blessedly occupied with the task at hand and not on things I could not for the moment remedy. Thus preoccupied, I walked around the back to where I knew to find the back entrance, which opened up to the next lane over. Thankfully the door opened easily, and I was relieved for more than one reason. The inside of the house was much the same as the forge in a way, had this feeling of neglect and abandonment. He was here though, I just knew it. Neither of us were as alone as we felt.
"Galen?" I called, disliking the sound of my voice disturbing the peace. There was no answer, and I continued to slowly move further into the house, leaving the door open behind me to let some light in. I saw the great grate, also cold. That would never do, so I knelt and stirred the ashes, threw kindling on, lit the flint and started the fire again. It would take time, but it would glow soon enough. I stood up and dusted my hands off on my trousers and looked out over the main room and the scullery attached, both empty. The last place he could be was in the loft above where his bed lay, and that was where I found him.
He lay with his back to the winding stairway, and me. The bed was built low to accommodate the low ceiling I ducked under, it stood about knee height to me. At its side I knelt, and put down the distaste in my mouth for this scene. It was too similar to my time spent at Archer's bedside.
"Galen." I touched his cold shoulder, and an icy hand gripped my heart when the first thought of the possibility he might do himself harm hit me. But in the next instant I saw him breathe, and knew him to be alive, and ignoring me. I'm not sure what, besides his death, could have hurt worse.
"It's me," I whispered. "Will you wake up?"
"Lemme be," he croaked.
"I won't," I answered. "Not until I see your face."
He didn't move or answer. I sat back for a moment and reconsidered my approach. I would not be able to manhandle him as he could me, he was much too big and strong for that. And I did not want to anger him by making him leave the place to which he had retreated to nurse his wounds. So I turned and sat on the floor, leaning my back against the side of the bed. From here I could look out of the main room and the growing fire.
"Did something happen?" I asked.
"So he left you behind," I mused softly, with the thought that I might be able to provoke him. It was cruel, but I needed him to hear me. "Or he chose a different route from you. He's done that before, hasn't he?"
I waited, but still no answer. I tried to recall all the bits and pieces of their past I had come to know.
"That's when you chased him down. He said you begged him to let you come along, is that true?" This time my pause between thoughts was very short. "Maybe he is expecting you to follow this time too. Maybe he is testing you."
"Which 'e' always be testin' me," Galen said shortly, his voice muffled. "'Tis why I cannet bring m'self ta go'long no more."
This made me turn and look at his back, for he still had not moved. "You know where he's gone?"
"Nay, but ‘e wouldn'ta be tha' hard ta find." He paused, then more softly. "I jus' cannet do'it no more."
I took a few moments to process what he was saying, and what that meant. I raised my head a little and smiled, almost to myself. "I am proud of you, then."
The words had in a way come out of my mouth before I had really thought them through, but as he turned to look over his shoulder at me, I found that they were the truth. He had broken the chain. Sure he was suffering for it, but he wouldn't forever. I could see that now. Our eyes met and I gave him another little smile. He didn't return it, but it had gotten to him. He turned over completely to face me, and his eyes flicked over my shoulder to the glowing light from the fire downstairs. We stayed like that in companionable silence for a long time.
"Maybe tha' woman's right tho'," he said quietly. "Tha' I don't ‘ave enough conviction. If'n I did, I'd follow ‘im right t' the end of the earth."
I thought back on her words, as I had many times before, about the Question. I felt I understood what that meant now, even if I did not know how this understanding might help me. For that same questioning was in my own head, and it shouldn't be. Hunter knew it was there, and I was beginning to think Archer did too. I sighed in my rumination, and Galen's ceiling-cast eyes flicked to me for a brief moment. When Tava had so vehemently stated that the Question shouldn't even exist, I began to wonder then at her dislike of Galen, of whether it had been a personal dislike, or if she had just frankly considered him too uncommitted for Avery. As I was not committed enough for Hunter. At the thought, anger that was new to me seeped up. What more could she have wanted? What more could Hunter? Besides Galen's adamant professions of his love over and over again for Avery, and my own attempts to strip myself bare of my insecurities for my lover's eyes only? That the cloud still hung over us was proof enough that he still distrusted me... or I mistrusted myself.
"Her conviction sounds like blind, dumb devotion," I said softly.
"Devotion. Tis a good word than, Duckie," he murmured.
"Devotion, not obsession," I said, almost to myself. "One implies the willingness to share yourself, the other to give yourself completely up. Would Avery want that of you?" I tried to silence the second train of thought that was also running along these lines. I did not think that Hunter wanted such a thing of me. But then why was it so difficult to feel I was giving him enough? Did some part of me want such a thing?
On the outside conversation, Galen's silence was answer enough for the question posed aloud. I hoped he knew as I did that in this instance Avery had a lot of growing up to do still. His selfishness might yet go away, and he may learn to trust Galen's love without the smith having to sacrifice his life for it. I even smiled to myself at the irony. Perhaps I too would have to trust my own love.
I looked at his handsome face again and this time he returned my sheepish smile.
"Will you come down the stairs to eat?"
"If'n yor cookin' sommat with meat," he answered.
I was able to make a decent stew with the side of salted beef he had left in the cooling cellar, which was not much and would not have lasted much longer. We sat on the floor in front of the fire, as we had so many times before. He talked about their childhood, some details of which I knew, and others that were new to me. He talked of how he had come from a small township of sharecropping families, and his parents had been amongst the poorest. Then Avery's family had come in, purchasing a large, fallow tract of land cheaply, and had begun plans to turn the long-unused soil into a vineyard. They were gentry, Galen said, "real prop'r like folk," which would account for Avery's more sophisticated speech versus Galen's provincial. I smiled at the little mystery solved.
Old enough to work such labor, his first contact with Avery had been in the overgrown cane fields that were slowly being mowed and burned. I learned Avery was a good three or four years Galen's junior, further confirming my earlier thoughts of his pettiness and selfish behavior against Galen's steadfastness. But at that age they had struck a friendship devoid of the outside world's pressures and temptations, and had grown up side by side for several years there in that growing vineyard. Their relationship had not been sexual, though Galen had been increasingly aware of his attraction to his friend for a good length of time before ever letting on. And that had only happened when Avery had broken from his family in what would be one of many petty spats and had run away. That was when Galen had caught him on the road and begged to be allowed to follow. When Avery had wanted to know why, he had blurted out his first ‘I love you'.
We were sitting on the hearth rugs, me leaning up against his chest and his arms were around me. He would rest his chin on my shoulder between the telling of his tale, and we would sit in comfortable silence for a time before I could get him talking again. That was when we heard footsteps, and a shadow blocked the light from the open back door. I saw Archer standing there at the threshold. He was looking at us, and did not enter.
Galen was up first and I began to read the look on Archer's face as the man approached him, though he schooled it quickly. Galen still wore no shirt, he had been spooned up with me. Would he and I never cease to be caught in such compromising positions by the people who needed to see them least?
"'ello. Tis Archer, right than?" Galen greeted, doing his best to quickly shrug off the melancholy he'd been carrying for weeks. I saw through it, and I'm sure Archer did too.
"Aye," he said, his eyes hardening and moving back to me. "I had passed Micah in the street. It's getting dark, I thought to walk him home."
Galen lowered the hand he'd had outstretched and turned back to look at me as well. I hadn't moved. "Tis all right, Duckie," he said softly. "'e's right, ya should go than." He gave me a pointed look that Archer could not see, as he had turned and walked back down the steps into the lane, where he waited for me, hands in his pockets.
I met Galen at the door with my head lowered. "I come to see you and you always get me in trouble," I jested poorly. His thumb came up to raise my chin.
"Sorry for tha'," he agreed with a wry smile. "But Duckie, ya do me more'n a world o' good. If'n I c'n ever ‘elp..." His voice trailed off and he looked over my shoulder at Archer.
"I know." I squeezed his hand, feeling ashamed to now want even that done secretly, and moved to fall into step beside Archer. He said nothing, just strolled as he had before, eyes forward, occasionally flicking to the buildings we passed. My eyes, however, only chanced glances at him.
"He is only a good friend," I said softly.
"It's not my affair," he said equally as quietly, so that his words, harsh as they were, had softer edges. Despite that, I stiffened as we walked, uncomfortable that he should assume such a thing when he knew I was with Hunter. Archer had been a married man, and a staunchly devoted one at that. He would not understand the friendship I had with Galen, and I did not see how I could ever explain it without bringing in details of how I occupied my earlier days here, a thing I had never wanted him to know.
So I let it lie. We returned to the Mill and its sparse early evening revelers, and parted ways- he to his room, and me to the bar in search of wine so that I may drown myself in it. I was almost done with my first bottle when Ghen joined me, and he endeavored to catch up. He, like I, was not working tonight, and no matter what his plans had been for the evening, he changed them, for he firmly believed no one should ever drink alone.
"Have you seen Hunter?" I asked, gingerly setting down the now-empty bottle.
"Earlier. He's been on the inn side for a time." He tipped back the second one we'd uncorked and in a few minutes he had reduced it by nearly a quarter. He hiccupped, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "What's the occasion?" He tilted the bottle at me.
"Friends and lovers," I moaned.
"May they always lie separately," he toasted cleverly.
We drank a little more, until I was firmly in my cups and he was close behind. People came and went through the bar and the sparse crowd began to thicken, but stubbornly we remained in our corner, unwilling to socialize. Josif, who had come behind the bar as we finished the second bottle, gave us a disapproving look when Ghen asked for a third.
"It's hardly dark yet and the two of you are drunk as lords already," he pointed out. "I can't have you dancing on tables, Lily."
"How dare you censure me," Ghen snipped with a grand gesture, "when you're the reason I drink." This didn't impress our handsome bartender, but he gave us another bottle anyway, and made us- well, me- promise that we wouldn't leave the bar but to go to our rooms and sleep it off. I suspected though, from his look, that this was meant more for Ghen than me. We all knew they had started their affair up again, a consequence of my difficulties in dealing with Archer and Ghen's difficulties in dealing with me. I had been happy for my friend, but their re-trysting seemed to come with its own set of problems.
As such, Ghen was currently picking out his lads of the evening, some of which he'd apparently already had, but that seemed to matter little. "Wolt is a man's man, but there's something about him that puts me off-" he was saying. I cast a bored glance around the crowd.
"Maybe it's all the hair," I said.
Ghen snorted. "He is like a bear, isn't he? Not my type really," he said with a snobby air. "I like them smooth. Like me."
Now I snorted into my drink. "Like Josif," I said with mock nonchalance.
"How would you know if he's hairy or not?"
"Because you've described his qualities in some very graphic detail to me on more than one occasion." I began to count off my fingers. "Color, height, width, girth, rough, smooth... what else is there?"
"Volume," he said with a smirk.
"I don't even want to know," I said.
"I meant volume of noise." He hit me playfully, then got quiet for a moment. "He's quite... expressive, you know. In bed." Though the topic could have been a humorous one, something in his voice had changed, and I resisted the urge to look away from the contents of my cup at him. It took him a few more seconds to finish his thought.
"I'm not though," he said, studying his own cup. He laughed at himself, but there was a trace of something rueful in it. Deep in my drunkenness I knew him to be quite gone as well, so this was his insecure side reaching the surface as it rarely did. For now I could only listen, at the same time selfishly hoping he would leave the focus on himself, and serve as the distraction I had been working so hard at getting to.
"Nope," he continued. "I'm almost silent as the grave with him. I don't know, it's just what comes natural. I'm only loud if I want to hurry things along with someone, you know?"
"You don't make any noise with him at all?" It was a difficult concept for me, since both Hunter and I were both fairly expressive ourselves in the throes of passion, as had been most, if not all, of my lovers previous at least to some extent. I really found it hard to believe that Ghen, in all his flamboyancy and pomposity, would not be absolutely raucous during his favorite activity.
But he was shaking his head. "Hardly any, except when... I don't know. Odd isn't it?" he said. Then he laughed, though it was short-lived. "It's not that he's not good, don't get me wrong. I... I just let it happen. I don't try as hard with him."
"If you care for him, you don't have to," I said. "That makes sense." As soon as I wondered if Josif had ever noticed Ghen's silence in bed, which I was sure he did, I then wondered what he thought of it. I looked over Ghen's shoulder at the bartender. His rugged handsomeness never ceased to impress me, as it had the first time I had met him. He was smiling at the two men to whom he was handing mugs of ale, a dazzling smile, not full of promises or even hints, but something simply genuine and friendly. I had actually not seen the flirtatious, promise-filled, I'll-see-you-round-the-back-alley smile in several weeks in fact. I looked back at Ghen and thought about his admission.
"You love him," I said flatly.
His eyes turned sharply at me, not out of surprise or offense, but with a bewildered look. "Of course I do," he said, as if it were something to be known all along. Of course I had known it. I just hadn't known he was willing to admit it to himself.
"Well then?" I asked.
The bewildered look didn't fade. "Well what?"
I sighed exasperatedly. "Does he know it?"
I watched him open his mouth to answer, in the same instant his eyes flicked over my shoulder and Hunter wound an arm around my shoulder with ease, a gesture to disguise his reaching for my mug.
"You two started early," he said, claiming it from me, and I pouted knowing I probably wouldn't get it back. He gave me a bit of a reproachful look.
Ghen sighed and let his eyes wander around the crowd, and I could see our conversation leaving the tension of his shoulders. "And how do you know?"
Hunter gestured to the two and a half empty bottles that sat on the bar behind us. "What's the occasion?"
"Friends and lovers," Ghen said offhandedly, echoing my sentiment from earlier. Inwardly I winced, and stole a glance at Hunter. He either did not take it for the wrong meaning, or he took it in stride, for he only sipped from my mug, and watched the crowd. His arm was still around my shoulder.
"Micah." Josif. We all three turned to him, but he leaned over the counter to say softly to me, "You might want to go check the back gardens. Someone just mentioned seeing an odd chap out there, sounds like it could be your friend from-" he pointed up, indicating the upper living quarters.
I steadied myself to move away from the bar, but stopped and turned when I noticed that neither Ghen nor Hunter were moving.
"You go," Hunter said. "Let me know if you need help." He reached to refill my mug for himself. Ghen didn't say anything, but just held his cup out too for more.
Was that it? Was he making it this easy on me? I turned to go, confused, more than inebriated, and wondering what I was to do now. Was Hunter trusting me now to handle this, to be alone with Archer? What did it mean?
My thoughts quickly changed their focus, as I had to devote more attention to not knocking into people, or losing my balance. The crowd was a blur of warm bodies until I had made it outside, through the door I had once been shoved through by a large, frightening man. That seemed so long ago now.
It was a veritable party outside, a band was playing, people were dancing, and a large lamb roasted in the open spit. There were lots of women here tonight as well, and I could hear their happy singing and laughter; grateful, I supposed, to get away from overbearing fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons, and into a crowd that cared less about them, and they could enjoy their own company unbothered. There was a wind up, which served to occasionally stir the fire a bit, much to the joy of the crowd.
I spied Archer away from everyone else, strolling back in the gardens themselves, which had a path woven through of old, worn flagstones. As everyone else was closer in near the fire and beer and wine, he was virtually unbothered. Following him, I could see how he might have raised some eyebrows; he was barefoot, and the black clothes he wore were his loose sleeping garments. He strolled deeper in and I followed, there was no way he couldn't have known someone was behind him, but he kept walking anyway without looking back. His right hand was raised a little, gently brushing the leaves and flowers he passed, absently.
The sounds behind us dimmed, and I knew we could no longer be seen from the Mill. As if he knew it too, he stopped, and touched the vines of honeysuckle that climbed the trellis before him and peered into the curious little flowers. The moon was bright; I could see him very well, and so he me.
I stopped a few paces from him, overcome with the awkwardness of our previous parting. What was I to say? Was I to try and explain myself again? Was there a need to? After all, I was an adult and no longer under his care. I should not have needed to explain anything. That would have been the case, if I had not owed him so much.
"Galen is a good friend," I said bluntly. "He was there for me though a difficult time."
"But you have been with him, yes?" he asked directly, as if there had been no break in the conversation between our walk home and our meeting here.
Slowly, I nodded. He wasn't looking at me; he didn't have to be.
Archer's fingers were still tracing the little flowers. "Was he your first?" His voice was softened in thought, but it did not lighten the directness of his question. It made me uneasy, but in my cups I had rashly decided to answer any question he would put to me. However, for that same reason I was unable to see the pitfalls of such a choice.
"No," I said. "Hunter was my first."
Now he looked at me, eyebrows raised. The open collar of his unlaced shirt had nearly slipped down his shoulder, and the strong line of his collarbone distracted me, until he said, "You were with that man after you came to be with Hunter?"
I shook my poor head. "No, I-" Pitfalls indeed. I retreated into my thoughts before I could stutter excuses. The moment was here, how to explain the way I had come to be where I was. What would he think? I looked him in the eye. "Hunter slept with me that first time... because I asked him to."
"Asked him to?"
I shrugged, defeated, and too weary now to try and tiptoe around it. Archer would have to hear it all. "I had been here for a while already, when I asked him as a favor. I wanted to know what it was... all about.""But why?" he asked. The inflection in his voice made me want to see his face again, and the expression in his eyes. They were gentle, but serious. He was leading me along, with the certain knowledge that I would not lie to him.
But I knew that too. My words took some time to force out, and by then, I had a lump in my throat. "I was so afraid of it, of everything. And leaving home, and you..." I lowered my voice and turned my head away for a moment and said, "I needed to know. And I didn't trust anyone else here."
"And after? You were with that man Galen?"
I sighed. "He was my first on the game."
Archer had moved to sit down on one of the wooden benches that dotted certain curves of the path. At my words he glanced up askance at me. "Do I even want to know what that means?" he asked, rubbing his forehead.
"It was a way to catch me up. Get comfortable in my skin," I said, my voice low and monotone, trying not to sound defensive, even though it was obvious in how my words quickly tumbled out. "I slept with men I met in the Mill, and they gave me gifts or money for it. It sounds worse than it was. I learned not to be afraid of who I was. It was the best thing I've ever done for myself."
"So that's what it is," he mused. "That's what had changed about you-" his voice softened, "the child who stumbled to my front door." He was shaking his head. One word of true doubt or revulsion from him could crush me forever, I knew it, and afterwards I would always question my deeds early in life and see his saddened face. I couldn't let that happen. It felt like my final test, if I could withstand even words of doubt from him. My defenses were up, even if it was only Archer, the one man I should have been most at my ease with. But no, they were up especially because it was him.
"I'd like to say it made me stronger," I said, hoping he would agree; that that was the change he was talking about. But he didn't say anything for several moments, and I awaited my fate. When he stood up, I knew this was going to hurt.
"How many men have you been with then, Micah?" The first stab did hurt, more than I thought it would, but it steeled my resolve. I again reminded myself I was an adult now, and capable of countering him.
"How many women have you been with?" I returned.
His answer was so immediate, and his stare so direct that my mind took a staggering step back. Of course he'd only been with one woman. They'd known each other since childhood. How different the worlds were that he had come from and the one that had taken me in.
I shrugged to cover my pause, my mind firing deep from my drunkenness so that my words came out tinged with bitterness. "How many men? I couldn't even tell you. But what does it matter now? One or one hundred. I guess that means I'm all used up, right?"
"I can't and won't judge you for decisions you make, Micah." My vehemence had gotten to him. Archer spread his hands. "It was our decision to send you here, the rest you did for your own well-being and happiness, I'm sure. That was our intention. If you are happy now that's all that should matter." He paused thoughtfully. "And who knows, if you had stayed with us, how different you might be."
"Yeah. I'd still be a virgin. And still a child." I'd said it before I could stop myself.
He blinked at me.
This time, I sat down on the bench behind me, opposite his, but I held his gaze. No going back now. "I would have waited, hid it, pretended you and I were at a level we could share a normal friendship. But we're not, and we never will be."
As I spoke he had slowly sank down again too, listening as if he were hearing and understanding this for the first time. Across the garden path on a moonlit night, we faced each other.
I broke the steadiness of his gaze to look away and mentally catch my breath. I raised my eyes to his again. "I love you," I said to him. "And I probably always will. And before you say it, I know you love me too, in your own way. But it's not in the way I want."
His tired eyes were sad as he watched mine, laden with the grief he'd been carrying for so long now, that I felt the wave of my affection for him well up to an unbearable point. I needed him to hear me. It was that welling up from within that made me stand up and cross the path and kneel before him. He remained where he was when I took his face in my hands, a gesture that surprised him.
"The way that I want," I breathed slowly at first. "I want you to love me. Hold me, call me gentle names, make love to me. I want everything lovers do." I took a breath. "I want that so much that it's almost unbearable to be with you otherwise." I released him and backed away, hugging myself, reeling a bit, such was the force of the answered Question. And Archer looked so alone there, reeling himself from my hold on him, staring at me like a pitiful, injured creature. In a way he was. What was he to do now? What course had I left him with, or myself for that matter?
"You have a lover," he whispered, echoing the train of my thoughts.
"You had a wife," I said.
"I loved her," he said, almost in defense.
"I love you," I returned.
He put his face in his hands again, giving pause to us both. My pounding heart and shallow breaths suddenly came into my consciousness- I had not noticed them before- and then they were forgotten again. I only knew now that I was high in the clouds at this point, there was nothing I couldn't say to him now. Nothing. All else be damned, it was only him and me for this moment.
When he spoke, I realized only a few brief moments had passed. He still had his face in his hands, muffling his voice. "Micah, you're not making any sense."
He did not see me kneel before him again until I had taken his wrists and pulled them from his face. He gazed down at me, darkened amber eyes wide, looking genuinely mystified by the young man before him now.
"Who are you?" he whispered.
"I am who you helped me to be. Myself." My fingers steeled around his wrists, holding them in check for what I was resolved to do next.
I kissed him. There had really been no forethought as to where I would go from there.
It was a chaste kiss, close-lipped, as he was too surprised and I, despite everything, was too timid to push my boundaries more than I had already. But I wasn't thinking that consciously. Eyes closed, I only knew his lips to be soft and warm; there was nothing else but their sensation. Not until, inevitably, he pulled his wrists from my grip and pushed me away. It was not a harsh shove, but enough to separate us. He had dropped his head, the hands of his outstretched arms still lingering against my shoulders, holding me away as if he were afraid I might try again.
But we both knew I wouldn't. I had dropped my eyes too while he took a moment to collect himself, for my own part trying to stave off the instant remorse that flooded my senses the moment our lips had separated. No, I told myself, this has to happen as it will.
"I want to help you," I said softly.
"Help me with what?" he asked, his voice also low.
"Whatever I can." I put my hands over his where they still held my shoulders. "I owe you that much. Whatever you need of me, you only have to ask." And though I knew myself to still be shamefully drunk, my head had in fact never felt more lucid than those few moments between us. He chose not to scold me, but simply released me and rubbed his face again.
"You don't owe me anything," he said softly. "You never have. I never felt that you did." I stood away before he might ask me for space; I had to be composed about this, or he would never trust me. No matter what he did decide to ask of me, even if it was for me to leave him be, it would be enough. For I realized I only needed him to need me. Only then could I be useful to him.
I stood over his bent figure, having felt the power of our dynamic shift, so slightly, into a place it had never been. "Let me give you what you once gave me," I whispered.
Archer looked up to gaze into my eyes again, as if judging my sincerity, and his voice came out hushed. "What is that?"
"Whatever it takes to get you to be you again."
The wind had picked up even more as I walked back alone, hands in my pockets, feeling like my head was clearing of alcohol with every step. Archer had chosen to stay behind wordlessly, only waving me off when, after a few moments of silence I asked if he wished to return to the Mill and eat, for it was getting late, and he was looking weary. When I left him he still sat on the same bench, his elbows on his knees.
The Mill lights glowing through the trees and vines reminded me of what I went back to. A jovial crowd that knew nothing of the trials that went on behind the walls of the place they loved so much. A dear friend who loved someone too selfish to love in return. Another who loved and was loved in return, but both were too selfish to reconcile it. And still another who had loved and lost, and thought he would never love again. And then there was the lover, the most unselfish of all, who had thrown me into my battles alone and was trusting me to come out victorious. I stopped and looked at the roasting pit, which had steadily grown into a bonfire, its warmth reaching me even from where I stood. I could not say if I had been victorious or not. The field had only been staked out; I still feared the mêlée was yet to come.
Inside, I did not find my lover, or Ghen. Only Josif was at the bar, working hard to keep up, a sheen of sweat on his brow and neck. I too felt the stuffiness of the inside bar he was suffering from, so much more for my having just come in from the warm open air. For a moment I stood there, watching Josif work, but not really seeing him. It took him a few calls of my name to snap me from my thoughts.
"Here now?" he said, raising an eyebrow. "You look like you've run three times round the square. Drink this."
The buttery ale was balmy on my throat. "Where did they go?"
"They? Hunter went to see to the inn side, something about a problem he's been having over there all day. Ghen fecked off to who-knows-where. Really Micah, you're red as a beet. You feeling all right?" He reached over, felt my forehead with his hot palm. I didn't answer, I just drank instead until he was compelled to fill my mug again. Over his shoulder I saw that Dray had taken part of the bar from him, allowing him some respite.
"I don't blame you though, it's hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock in here." He chuckled to himself. "If we don't get another storm tomorrow I'd be surprised though. Always gets stagnant hot before that wind shifts, you know?" He was rinsing mugs in a tub of soapy water as he spoke, his loose sleeves rolled up to his elbows, his blond hair damp and limp and hanging in his eyes, and the sinews of his bronzed forearms twisting and shifting. "Then boom, next thing you know the streets are flooded with God-knows floating about. Still, can't complain how it cleans the place up a bit, when it all gets washed to the river-"
"Josif, do you love him?"
He stopped and looked up at me. "Love him?"
"Ghen. Do you love him?" My gaze bore into his face, and I saw the cynical comment that came so naturally to him reach his lips, and fade.
"Of course I do," he answered soberly. "Love is not the problem."
"What is it then?"
Josif wiped his hair from his eyes, but it fell back stubbornly. "Trust," he said.
"You don't trust him?"
"He doesn't trust me." He reached for my empty mug, refilled it.
"Have you given him reason not to?"
His eyes lifted to mine. "Oh sure," he said with a half-smile. "But he's done the same. The difference is I can live with it, he's the hypocritical ass who can't." His voice had gained an irritated clip to it. "Let's make that your last one, Micah, you look done in." And with that, he abandoned the remaining dirty glasses and moved back to help Dray at the other end of the bar.
I remained seated where I was, staring at his back, chewing thoughtfully over his words. The ale was beginning to leave a bitter taste in my mouth, especially since I had started the evening out with wine. Suddenly disgusted, I shoved the mug away from me and laid my head in my arms on the bar. I sighed in the blessed darkness, even though it would only last a few moments, and there was still the heavy din of activity around me. However, that too, faded.
I awoke with a start to someone's hands slipping under my arms and pulling me up off my stool. Had someone been trying to wake me? Had someone said my name? Flailing about disjointedly for a moment, I found my legs refused to hold my weight. Hunter had an arm around my chest under my arms, cradling my back against his side, so that I looked like a poor puppy being carried about by an unmindful child. Hunter was asking Josif how long I had been there. Josif was answering at least half an hour. Apparently I was more smashed than I had thought. But everything had seemed so clear, and though presently the room was spinning, I still remembered the garden vividly.
Snapping back to myself, I tried to regain my feet. Hunter told me to be still and I quieted at the tone of his voice. Now I was the child, and I was being scolded. He half-helped, half-dragged me up the stairs to our rooms by the back way so that no one would see me in such a state, if they had not already. Thankfully, by this time of night, most of them would be the same as I.
In the privacy of our cool bedroom he sat me on the edge of the bed where I promptly fell back, my spine, like my legs, refusing to support me. Hunter was pulling off my shoes. The room was really spinning now.
"I have told him time and again not to give you the copper malt," he was muttering. "You can't handle it."
"I only had one," I protested as he unlaced my breeches and divested me of them. "I think..."
"And almost two bottles of wine before that. You're going to be ill tomorrow." He had difficulties getting the rest of my clothing from me, but finally succeeded. I was shivering but hardly noticed, being now too occupied by the nausea that had finally risen. Seeing me cover my face with my hands, Hunter acted quickly, picking me up and taking me to the washroom and basin, where I retched until my ribs were sore, and he patiently rubbed my back until my body had quieted.
When I was coherent, I became aware of the cold floor beneath me, and my nakedness. Hunter had taken the basin away when he was sure I no longer needed it, and came back to sit on the floor with me to wipe my face with a cool, damp cloth. Dazedly, I let myself laugh at the sight: he fully clothed, me completely bare. Both of us on the floor.
I rinsed and spat with the water he'd given me, but refused to drink for fear it might send me into a fit again. He let it be for a moment, fingers brushing my hair back as I leaned on him and tried to shut out the light, dim as it was. He sighed and said softly, "What on earth got into you? You never go this far."
"Please don't yell at me." Did the words sound as clear out of my mouth as they did in my head?
"I'm not yelling, Micah," he answered evenly, watching me get up and stumble back into the main room and tumble ungracefully onto the bed.
I wasn't looking at him but I knew he followed; I felt the bed shift. A lump had risen in my throat, but not from sickness. And though his voice had been gentle and low, patient as ever, I covered my ears and squeezed my eyes shut. I felt the tears then roll down the sides of my face. I was seeing Archer's face after I had kissed him. I couldn't listen to Hunter's tender voice at the same time.
"I'm sorry," I whimpered. I had so many things to apologize for.
"Hush," he whispered, making an effort to get me under the covers, his movements a little frazzled now that he thought he had made me cry. He lay on the coverlet next to me and dabbed my eyes with the sheet. "Hush. It's nothing to cry over. Believe me, you'll be more sorry tomorrow." He had said it in a gentle jest, but the words hit home. I sniffed. He was stroking my hair.
"I know," I whispered.
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