It was a string of rather colourful curses that stopped Elijah Pinhoe in his tracks that morning. He paused to listen to it appreciatively, as he might have savoured a rare bird call, and then bent his path through the woods to find where it had come from.
The source was easy to locate, crashing around in the underbrush as it was. It proved to be a tall, lanky young man with fair hair wearing, rather unexpectedly, a silk dressing gown. "Buggering bloody hell!" he shouted, and kicked a nearby oak tree. This seemed to hurt his foot, and he hopped around angrily in a circle, which brought him face to face with Elijah. He stopped hopping and stood there glowering instead.
"Something the matter?" Elijah asked him. The man wasn't anyone from Ulverscote, or Helm St Mary, or even Hopton - in fact, Elijah had never seen him before, which was odd. There weren't many visitors to these parts, and that was the way they liked it.
The man in the dressing gown sniffed, turning up his rather funny hooked nose. "Nothing at all." He rubbed at his leg as though it itched him. Elijah could see at once what must have happened. There was a healthy patch of stinging nettle on the other side of the clearing, and by the looks of things this chap had managed to walk into it. He wasn't sure if that was enough to explain the sheer volume and variety of the swearing he'd heard, though.
"Dock leaves," he said.
"What?" The fair haired man looked puzzled and more than a little cross.
"Take the sting out of nettles, they do," Elijah explained. "If someone had managed to sting himself, somehow. But since you're fine, I'll be going about my way." He turned to leave, whistling to himself.
"Wait," said the young man before he could get more than ten feet away. "Ah, which ones are dock leaves, and what would one do with them, hypothetically?"
Elijah smiled, turning back. "Here." After a few moments of foraging, he came up with a patch of the long green dock leaves. He tore them roughly between his hands, squeezing them until their juices leaked. "Where's it hurt?"
The stranger's blush was very visible beneath his pale skin as he drew aside his dressing gown and showed one thin, bare leg. The red rash on his calf was impossible to miss, as were his fancy slippers. Elijah knelt down and gently rubbed the thin green liquid on the sting, pressing the crushed leaves to the spot as well. "In dock, out nettle," he murmured as he applied the poultice, not quite casting a spell because he didn't want to show his magic in front of a stranger, but at least using the right words for the occasion.
He looked up, and found that the young man was staring back at him, pale blue eyes wide with surprise. "It works!"
"Well of course it does," Elijah said, a bit offended. "I know a thing or two about herbs and simples."
"Oh, of course," the young man stammered, at least having the good grace to look embarrassed. "I only meant I didn't expect it to work so quickly."
"Why are you wandering around in the woods without trousers on?" Elijah asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.
The stranger looked still more embarrassed. "I'm meant to be having breakfast this morning with some officials from the Ministry, followed by a meeting with a professor from Cambridge, and then speaking to an ambassador from Series Four, and it was just all... too much. So I took myself here. I wasn't really thinking about clothes at the time."
Elijah realized with a growing horror where this awkward, gangling young man must have come from. "You work at That Castle? For the Big Man?" He counted his blessings that he hadn't done any magic in front of him.
"Not exactly," he said miserably. "I am the Big Man. Or I'm meant to be. I only started a fortnight ago, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I hate it."
Elijah hadn't heard there was a new Chrestomanci at the castle, but he wasn't surprised - the last one had been older than dirt. This rather weedy and nervous young man didn't seem like he ought to be put in charge of the ticket booth at a village fair, let alone all magic across all the worlds. No wonder he'd run away. "What's your name?" he asked, because he didn't feel right calling him 'sir' or trying to use his title while he was kneeling in front of him rubbing a mashed-up handful of dock leaves on his skinny leg.
"Gabriel," he said. "Gabriel de Witt. What's yours?"
"Pleased to meet you," he said politely. "It feels much better now. My leg, I mean. Not the prospect of going back to the castle. That's still horrid."
Elijah removed the crushed leaves from the enchanter's leg. It didn't look any different than anyone else's leg, other than being pale and slim and rather soft. He squeezed a few more drops out of the dock leaves in order to rub them in, because he found himself strangely reluctant to let go. "Did you say you hadn't eaten yet today?"
"Well, yes," Gabriel said, blinking in mild confusion.
"Things always look better after a spot of breakfast," Elijah told him. "Sit down and have a bite to eat."
They settled onto the ground, Elijah making sure Gabriel wasn't about to sit on an anthill or a thistle and do himself a further mischief. Gabriel tucked his dressing gown primly about his legs. Elijah smiled to himself, and took out from his pack the food he'd been planning to have for lunch - a wedge of Stilton, some bread, a few thick slices of ham, a couple of hard-boiled eggs, and an apple, all neatly wrapped in a napkin. "Help yourself," he told Gabriel.
The enchanter reached for the cheese, but paused before taking it. "Won't you be hungry?"
"I'll make do," Elijah replied. "There's enough I can gather from the woods and hedgerows that I'm not liable to starve - at least not before teatime."
Giving a rather undignified snort of laughter at that, Gabriel made himself a sandwich from the meat and cheese, which he began devouring at a rapid pace.
"You wouldn't rather I cut the crusts off for you, maybe scrounged up some watercress and salad cream?" Elijah teased gently, watching him eat.
Gabriel shook his head. "No, it's wonderful, because it actually tastes of something. The food at the castle is all so miserably bland and soggy. Even worse than school dinners."
"You're the Big Man," Elijah pointed out. "Can't you order them to make you what you want?"
Gabriel's eyes went wide, as though this idea hadn't occurred to him, and faintly terrified him now that it had. "The staff have all been there much longer than I have, and there are Ways Things Are Done."
"If you're going to do this, you're going to need to find some new Ways - about things other than dinners, too."
"I tried hinting it might be nice to have kedgeree for breakfast, and Mrs. Bradley went all cross and fierce about newfangled foreign foods and what was wrong with a nice bowl of porridge - her porridge is like wallpaper paste, by the way - and so I didn't mention it again."
Elijah considered for a moment, as Gabriel gobbled up one of the eggs and started in on the apple. "Maybe you're approaching it the wrong way," he said at last. "Like the nettles."
"No," he said, chuckling. "When you go to pick a nettle, you can't touch it too gently, or you'll be stung.
"Tender-handed, stroke a nettle,
And it stings you for your pains.
Grasp it like a man of mettle,
And it soft as silk remains."
"Does that really work?" Gabriel wondered, tossing aside the apple core.
"It does on nettles," Elijah said with a shrug. "Being bold is worth a try on people too." He reached out and took Gabriel's delicate hand in his rough one. The enchanter looked startled, but didn't pull away. "See?"
"Yes," Gabriel said slowly, looking down at their joined hands and then back at Elijah. "I suppose you're right." He leaned over and kissed Elijah quite firmly on the lips, which was rather surprising but not at all unwelcome. "Like that?"
"Well, I'm not sure how well that would work on your cook, or the Prime Minister," Elijah said with a smile. "But I liked it." He kissed Gabriel again, pulling him close, and a few moments later they had rolled to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs, with Gabriel's dressing gown spread out over the moss and bracken beneath them.
"Shall I grasp you firmly too?" Gabriel asked with a sly smile, and Elijah nodded. He would have thrown a screen up around them if it had been anyone else he was tumbling in the woods, but he couldn't risk even a minor spell in front of Chrestomanci without getting himself into far more trouble than he would for what they were already up to - and then he stopped worrying about all of that, and just concentrated on what Gabriel was doing with his hands, which felt wonderful, and then on what he was doing with his mouth, which was even better. It was sordid and splendid and over far too quickly.
"Let me do that for you," Elijah said when he could talk again, and did his best to return the favour. Gabriel was slim and pale and elegant all over, and Elijah felt clumsy and crude taking him in his hand. But the way Gabriel moaned and squirmed and flushed pink soon put his worries of being too rough to rest. And when it came down to it, the nine-lived enchanter in charge of magic across all the worlds was also a rather lonely young man, desperate for someone to touch him. When he'd reached his conclusion, he held onto Elijah very tightly for a good long while, as though he didn't want to let go.
Eventually, though, they had to. Gabriel magicked his dressing gown's grass stains away, and Elijah wiped his hands on his trousers before fastening them again. It could have easily been an awkward moment, but their eyes met and they smiled at one another, and Elijah knew that neither of them regretted it, and that neither of them would ever tell another soul. "Good luck with your meetings - and your cook," he told Gabriel.
"Thank you," he said. "I'll take your advice on how to handle them. And maybe I'll see you again."
"Next time it all gets to be too much?" Elijah asked with a resigned smile.
"Hopefully sooner than that," Gabriel told him. "I owe you a meal, at the very least, since I ate yours."
"The Plough in Bowbridge puts on a fine spread. And they have some private rooms upstairs," suggested Elijah.
"I'll fit it into my schedule," Gabriel promised. "I mean it. It's good to talk to someone who doesn't care who I am."
"I care who you are," Elijah said. "I just know that you're more than your title."
Gabriel went pink and smiled. "Yes, sometimes it's easy to forget that. Thank you for reminding me."
Elijah smiled back. "I'd be glad to remind you of that anytime."