fiction

Fifty Silver Bells and Nine

by Katherine Crighton

Originally published on tumblr, February 2, 2015. Written for laurlovescookies.

============

It was one of the house-party days, the ones when Alex pretended he had a grand salon, a modern-day Algonquin Round Table with himself firmly in the role of Dorothy Parker. Becca had come by, and Sadie, and a few of the old crowd from college and the new crowd from the gallery, before Alex had had to quit. Thom’s role on days like this was, generally, to keep the food coming and provide the occasional set-up lines for Alex’s wit. 

Not so officially, and not so anyone would notice, Thom kept a careful eye on Alex, watching for when he was starting to flag so that guests could be directed gently out while the feeling of triumph was still high, before the exhaustion of the illness crept back in.

The ability to dismiss guests with aplomb was one of Thom’s more minor talents, compared to some of the other things he could do.

Bryan, who’d been Alex’s assistant for all of two weeks before Alex had had to take a leave of absence and yet had somehow managed to imprint on him like a particularly gay baby duck, leaned forward with his glass of wine and looked dreamily between the two of them. “Okay, I have to know. How did the two of you meet? Was it online dating? Was it a chance encounter? Was it–” His eyes grew wide. “–fate?”

Alex leaned back in his chair, the blanket Sadie had knitted for him tucked firmly around his legs, and covered his face in his hands. “Oh my god,” he said. “Do not get him started–”

“I’m sorry, did someone ask an embarrassing question about how Alex and I met?” Thom left the kitchen to drape himself over the top of Alex’s armchair. “Dear heart, you act as if it isn’t the most romantic story in the world. Which it is.”

Alex waved one hand in the air, the other still covering his face. “Go on. Tell him. He’ll learn.”

Thom crossed his arms on top of the chair while Becca and Sadie settled themselves against the couch, clearly ready to hear an old familiar favorite. “Alex was on some sort of trip with his schoolmates, seeing the great art pieces of England or some tosh like that. I have no idea why Essex was on their list of places to visit, but there they were, and from what I gather, one morning Alex decided he needed to go for a walk. In the woods. By himself.”

“To be fair,” Alex said, muffled by his hand, “I was inspired by the angle of the light and the amazing history of the forest.”

“To be fair,” Becca said, “you were still drunk from the night before, when Sam decided to break up with you by international phone call.”

Alex shot a glare at Becca from between his fingers. “Silence,” he said. “Your role here is to be seen and not heard. My wonderful and un-embarrassing partner is currently speaking.”

Thom reached down and drew his fingers through Alex’s hair. “Un-embarrassing?” he said.

Alex shifted, looked up. His eyes widened. “I spoke too soon.”

“So there I am,” Thom said, “taking a ride through the lovely morning woods, and I see a young man, almost criminally handsome, about two steps away from falling to his doom. On flat land. Something in the quality of his footing, or the expression on his face.” Thom grinned down at Alex’s mulish expression. “It was rather impressive, dear heart.”

“I changed my mind,” Alex said. “You’re not allowed to speak either.”

“This is the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” Bryan said, and clutched his drink closer.

“Naturally, I had to help him,” Thom said, and shrugged. “Ten years later, and here we are.”

One of Alex’s other coworkers tilted his head, looking questioningly between the two of them. “Huh. I– really?” he asked, sounding a little confused. “I don’t know, I just. That’s awesome for you guys, I’m just trying to figure out the timeline. I mean, do you really count ten years from then? How did you figure out the two different countries thing? And, I mean, you would’ve been seventeen or eighteen too, wouldn’t you, so… ”

Thom hummed a little, and quietly pushed the questions from everyone’s minds. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to do so – he could manage it in his sleep at this point. Alex let out a breath, almost a laugh. “More drinks, anybody?” Thom said, and straightened from his perch.

It wasn’t long after that that the party ended. The house was quiet once they’d gone. Not empty, though. As long as Alex was in the house, it wouldn’t be empty.

Thom, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as substantial as his presence would suggest. But Alex had never seemed to mind, so.

He began to hum, just the smallest thing, and water flowed from the tap without him having to touch a thing. He let his steps settle into the beat of the song, and glided over to the doorway of the living room.

Alex looked up at him, pulling a smile from somewhere. Now that everyone was gone, he let the fatigue show. “For me?” he said quietly.

Thom took the tune and moved it to his fingertips, beating it on his thigh to keep up the song as he came over and knelt by Alex. “Only for you,” Thom said. “Isn’t that what I promised, when I took you for my own?”

Alex laughed a little, and tried to raise himself from his chair. His blanket slipped, and Thom could see the bruises that never seemed to fade mottling the skin at Alex’s thin hips, the bones of his back. Thom traded his fingertips for his voice again, the words shushing against Alex’s hair as Thom lifted him to take him to the bath.

When he was settled in the warm water, the air redolent of clover and thyme, Alex turned his head, eyes heavy, and said, “You didn’t expect this, though.”

Alex’s skin was pale, almost translucent compared to the vibrant boy Thom had taken up on his saddle while on his hunt in Epping Forest. Had Alex been ill even then? To fall in such a place, at such a time, and to be picked up by one such as Thom…

Thom smiled softly at Alex, pushed his sweat-damp hair from his forehead. Didn’t stop his music. He tried not to, when there was no one else here. It eased Alex’s pain. Made the world a little softer for him. Magic, he’d found, had more uses than just play and sport.

He tapped his tune against the edge of the porcelain just so he could say, “It would have been seven years in my mother’s day. I’ve had you for ten. You can’t tell me I didn’t get the better bargain.”

Alex closed his eyes, smiled a little. “I thought time wasn’t supposed to work the same way over there,” he said. “It would have seemed like longer.”

Alex was… Alex was beautiful. But all mortals were. They lasted for a spark of time, and that light was immeasurably bright compared to the dark eternity of forever.

Thom wished he didn’t see Alex as a morning star in the heavens of humanity. He could say that it was because of who Alex was, because of the love they shared, the miracle of his strength, the beauty of his art… His mother, though, would have said he was more lovely for the brevity of his life than for the quality of his soul.

Thom might have thought the same, once upon a time.

He leaned forward, pressed his mouth to Alex’s forehead, felt the pulse beat slow and shallow against his lips. Faced with all that Alex was, all the things he had been and would never be… Thom worried that he was too much like his mother. The Queen would have loved Alex as well. Thom, though, had been walking on mortal soil for ten years, not riding in the hunt, not playing in the Other Lands– and he didn’t understand why he was here, doing the things he did, trying to be the person Alex needed.

He didn’t know how to pray that he was doing it for the right reasons.

Thom sat back, willing his voice warm and his face to bear a quirked smile. He took Alex’s too fragile hand in his. “I think, though, that the time we have here is supposed to mean more, dear heart,” he said, and began to sing again.

end

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