Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
“No,” Taran said, pulling away from Fflewddur's hand. “No. I'm not worth that.”
Ignoring these harsh protests, Fflewddur cupped Taran's face, pale and gaunt now from illness and sorrow, once more with a caressing hand. He ran the pad of his thumb gently down Taran's cheek, letting it brush the soft chapped surface of his friend's mouth.
It was springtime, but only barely, and the light that came in through the sheepskin-covered window was harsh and cold. The little cottage was warm enough. They'd burned the hearthfires hot as Taran had ridden out his fever. The snow had given up its grip on them a week ago, and Gurgi had worked night and day to dry and bundle enough straw for a new mattress. Now it crackled under them, Taran lying warm and curled against straw and fleece and heavy wool, Fflewddur sitting perched beside him.
When he'd come through the hills into sight of Craddoc's house again, driven by a cold wind and the ill tidings that he brought, he'd seen the lights of Fair Folk lanterns bobbing up and down the crags and cliffs of that steep place, moving like fireflies in the falling dark. He'd never been so frightened in all his life. They'd carried Taran up off the cliffs by the time he'd made his hastened way up to the cottage door. The lad been out of his head by that time with pain and grief and terrible knowledge, and he hadn't recognized Fflewddur's voice. It had been far too late to tell him the truth about the old shepherd – whose body the Fair Folk also carried up from the crags, and buried.
In Taran's illness all the bones of his face had stood out clearly to Fflewddur's reluctant eye, offering him an unwished-for glimpse of the structure outlined and immutable beneath his living flesh, and Fflewddur had wanted to cringe away from the stark nakedness of it. He had not done so, instead sitting awake by Taran's bedside for long hours, dawn and day and dark and dawn again, idly plucking at his harp-strings and watching the bareness of Taran's bones, thinking strange voiceless thoughts.
Taran had woken eventually, known him, and Gurgi, and spoken their names, but some part of him had yet to resurface. It was, Fflewddur thought, the thing that made him more than bones, and without it he was little more than a skeleton, mobilized.
“There is nothing,” Fflewddur said, suddenly thick-throated, “that you are not worth.” And he leaned forward, greatly daring, to press a light kiss against the crease of Taran's long-lashed fluttering eyelid.
“I can't,” Taran said, pulling back again. His dark eyes were wide, desperate, crowded; in the pale bluish light they looked almost black.
“Tell me why, then,” Fflewddur urged. If he could just pry the words loose from those pale chapped lips -!
The incipient panic drained from Taran's face, and in its aftermath he sank back, exhausted, against his lambswool pillows. “For two reasons,” he said in a dull, leaden voice. “First, because – what pleasure can I take from you, knowing how selfishly my pleasures have nearly made me act? Knowing that I'd kill a man to better my own fortunes, because I could not find it in my heart to respond fully to his love? It's a different kind of love, Fflewddur, but – ” a little choke in his voice interrupted him. His throat worked soundlessly for a moment. At last he went on: “And second – I will never have her love, now, but I can't – I've loved her for too long, Fflewddur. I can't stop now.”
It was Fflewddur's turn to sit for a long moment in silence, listening to the wind as it wuthered around the stones outside, and the small animal noises of the late morning beyond their walls.
“I remember,” he said after a time, “the first time I ever set eyes to you.”
Taran barked out a laugh. “I was a scruffy little fool,” he said.
“You were angry with me,” Fflewddur replied, shaking his head, “and wrongly so, but even at the time, well … you were something wonderful.” He let his mouth curl up a little, remembering that sweet-hearted dark-eyed boy. “Dirt in your hair and dirt on your face. I've loved you for a long time,” he confessed. “Nearly as long, I think, as you've loved her. I would never ask you to give that up, Taran. I never would have spoken, except – all I ask is that you let me give you something, here, now. And don't tell me that you don't need it.”
Taran sighed and melted, some tight-drawn thing in his face suddenly relaxing as he curled up against Fflewddur's thigh like a child or an animal. “I don't want to hurt you,” he said, face turned away, voice muffled.
“Then let me.”
Taran raised his head and nodded, and Fflewddur leaned further forward to kiss him properly.
It was a gentle kiss at first, as slow and elastic as honey, stretching out across the pale blue time of the early spring room. Taran's mouth was hot and yielding, and Fflewddur's nose was full of his musky body-warm scent. He opened the kiss gradually, slowly, first running his tongue over Taran's lower lip in promise and invitation, and then taking the offered space between Taran's lips as they parted in surprised pleasure. Distractedly, Fflewddur wondered if Taran had even been kissed like this before.
Fflewddur pressed in closer, going to his knees above Taran and kissing him as deeply as he'd ever known how to do it. Taran, lovely and flushed and panting now against the heavy bedclothes, moaned into his mouth, and Fflewddur swallowed the sound, tasting the need in it. He could feel Taran hard and hot beneath him.
He sucked Taran's tongue into his own mouth, letting teeth scrape delicate flesh, breathing more heavily himself as Taran explored him in return.
When the kiss broke both drew back, gasping for breath. “Oh,” Taran said, dazedly. The skin around his mouth was red and swollen, and his lips shimmered wet in the strange light. He looked dazzled, vibrant, somehow more alive: less a ghost, more a young man with breath and heartbeat, both made newly rapid.
“Yes?” Fflewddur asked him, not trying to contain his wide cat's-cream grin.
“Yes,” Taran panted. “Oh, yes. I – where – I didn't know –”
“I'd wondered,” Fflewddur said, trailing a hand down the planes of Taran's face, his neck, his collarbone, pushing the shirt down off of one broad-bony shoulder. “May I show you, dear heart?”
Taran blushed, ducking his head. “Please,” he whispered, hiding his eyes from view. “Please – if you will.”
Desire flared in Fflewddur like a flame. Great Belin, he wanted to render that lovely hoarse voice incoherent. “May I undress you?” he said, letting arousal husk into his words. He was achingly hard within his breeches.
The blush extended down Taran's throat, his neck, down his chest. “All right,” he said, swallowing hard, and Fflewddur reached for his shirt-laces, unthreading them eyelet by eyelet until his could pull the soft white cloth down over the shoulders, baring the back. Taran was paler than was his wont, golden brownness stolen from him by the length of the cold dark winter.
When Taran was clad in only his breeches, he murmured, “You too,” and reaching up tugged Fflewddur's shirt up and off. Fflewddur went to goosebumps at once in the cool air, and laughed at himself as he leaned down over Taran's supine length.
Carefully, gently, he pressed kisses along the lines of Taran's ribs. Taran moaned and then pulled himself up, gasping, as Fflewddur touched long gentle fingers to the inside of his thighs. It only brought them into a closer embrace, and he clung to the bard as Fflewddur traced little spider-patterns on his secret skin, slowing working his breeches down around his knees until he lay totally exposed. His pale body was infused with a flush of fullblooded arousal, and Fflewddur's small touches caused him to make small noises of strangled need as he jerked his hips convulsively upwards, again and again.
“Shall I touch you?” Fflewddur asked, letting his fingertips drift close.
“Mmmph,” Taran answered, pressing his face hard against Fflewddur's chest.
It wasn't enough. “Tell me, darling,” he said again. “Tell me what you want.”
He could feel each small motion of muscle beneath Taran's skin as he let himself drop back down to the bed. He could see the wide, blown darkness of Taran's eyes, and something worried hovering at the corners of his still-swollen mouth. “I don't know what to ask you for,” Taran said quietly, low and flushed.
Fflewddur grinned at him, letting his canines show. “Anything you want,” he answered, meaning it as a promise.
Taran's eyes darted sideways; the blush crept higher into his face. “No,” he said. “I – I mean – I don't know what - ”
Taking mercy on his squirming friend, Fflewddur asked him, “Well, do you want me to – ah, to touch you – there?”
Eyes still dropped, Taran said: “Yes.”
Taran bit his lip; Fflewddur caught his breath. “I – I want you to take me - to completion,” he said, stammering, “but I'm not sure -”
“Ah,” said Fflewddur, understanding coming all at once. “Here, dear heart,” he said, stroking the curve of Taran's shoulder, his side, his waist. He laid himself down on the bed, and reaching up grasped Taran's bared hips, pulling Taran's groin to press against his upper legs. Slicking his hand with saliva, reaching into the shadow where their two bodies touched, Fflewddur took Taran's cock in his hand, positioned it between his own inner thighs, and then gave a long slow thrust with his hips. Taran bent down like a bow to meet him, eyes closed, voice audible but incoherent. He turned his head; the curvature of his throat lay exposed. “This way,” Fflewddur said.
Fflewddur wanted to touch every part of him at once, to hold and envelop him, to take momentary possession of all that bright beauty at once. He was greedy for contact with Taran's intoxicating skin. He began a rhythm, rubbing his body up and down Taran's length at every stroke. “Taran,” he gasped, letting his head fall, letting himself glut on sensation: heat and breath and sweet and musky smells, the little sounds Taran kept in with tightened lips.
Lifting Taran's hips, Fflewddur grasped his buttocks in his hands, kneading their flesh, letting his nails scratch ever so slightly against the skin. Taran bucked in his grasp, thrusting mindlessly into the tight crease of Fflewddur's groin, his arousal making the slide slicker and slicker. “There?” Fflewddur asked, and was rewarded with a strangled moan of affirmation. Moving his hands so that his index fingers could trace the line of Taran's tailbone down between his legs, he asked again, “There?”
“Yes,” Taran managed, guttural and raw, and Fflewddur withdrew his hand, wetted his finger, and slid it gently inside Taran's body.
Just one finger, crooked upwards in one curling stroke, but it made Taran shout and thrust up in a spasm of response, and then he was coming hard and hot against Fflewddur's thighs. He looked beautiful in orgasm, hands fisted in the bedding, face suffused with red blood, closed eyes letting dark lashes sweep down like shadows. Following Taran down, Fflewddur let himself fall away, and then for a moment just lay still, mindless in inchoate worship, with the weight of Taran's collapsed body heavy on his chest.
At first Taran lay so limp in Fflewddur's arms, his eyes still closed, his breathing deep and heavy, that Fflewddur thought he'd fallen asleep. But then the dark eyes flickered open. “You know that I never could have asked you for this?” Taran asked.
Fflewddur kissed him. “You'll note,” he said, controlling the tremor that wanted to come out in his voice, “that you didn't have to. I asked you.”
“Do you understand why I have to go?”
The full time of returning spring had restored color to Taran's skin and flesh to his body, but the dark eyes remained somber – save for when Fflewddur kindled them with heat. As Taran grew stronger, Fflewddur took more risks in loving him, allowing his greedy heart to slip its bonds and take Taran in as wholly as he could. But he'd always known that it would not be enough.
“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “And you'll do well in the Free Commots. You'll thrive. I only wish that I might go there with you.”
Taran shifted uncomfortably, dropping his eyes away. He stood in the doorway of the little cottage in his shirtsleeves, surrounded by afternoon sunlight. His pack hung, empty still, in his hands. He said nothing, but only bit his lip.
“Well then,” Fflewddur managed after a great effort. “Go. I'm – happy for you, that you've found your way.” Inside, a harp string broke with a tinkling twang.
Taran looked up, then. “I wish that it might've been different,” he said.
Fflewddur twisted his mouth up into a smile. “I don't,” he replied, and no sound of snapping strings followed the sound of his voice. But, when Taran left the next morning with Gurgi at his side, the bard stood watching after him long after both figures had faded from his sight.