His palm slapped against warm stone. James clung to it, chest heaving. Q had reached the stepping stones first, was already on the shore gathering clothing. James had lost count of how many circuits they had made, from one side, then the other, like hands on a clock being reset repeatedly. He had almost caught up several times, but then Q would turn, push himself off the rocks in a shallow dive and seconds would be lost admiring the pale arch of his body. James was doing it now as Q bent, slim and supple as a bow, to collect something that had fallen to the ground.
Breath regained, James waded through the cooler water to the shore. He snatched the remaining towel from the nymph’s grasp. She may have smirked. “Swimming’s not my sport,” he muttered. He ran the towel over his head and chest, under his arms, watched Q spread his towel at the edge of the lawn. But it’s definitely yours. The sun had dropped below the treetops. Fingers of light stretched through the branches, past Q and across the grass to James’s feet. The sunbeams wavered and James glanced up. Clouds drifted west. He pulled on his fleece, patted its pockets, received no crinkling response. He inhaled sharply and checked the ground. The breeze murmured through the trees. A leaf turned. James looked towards Q, saw him folding back a page. James exhaled slowly. He had come to the lake looking for Q to show him the papers. Q sat with the pile of garments by his side, facing the water. One knee was drawn up, his elbow resting upon it, his eyes intent on the words before him. Behind him foliage stirred, shifting the patterns of green shade and evening light.
James waited. Q angled his head in one direction, the papers in another. The margins were full of notes, the text rife with stars and carets and arrows. Q flipped to the next page. James ran a hand through his hair. If I ordered them perfectly might they cast a spell? The leaves rustled. James pulled his fleece closed without zipping it. He took a step nearer. Q was reading the addenda again, pencilled scrawls held up to the fading light. Q turned to the last page. James wrapped his towel around his waist, took a few more steps, eyes on Q’s face, searching for a change in expression which did not come until Q suddenly rifled through the pages, checking the backs and looked up, brow furrowed.
“These are fragments, notes. Where’s the rest?” he asked, holding out the papers. The question brought James close enough to take them. He tapped his temple.
Q tilted his head back, pushed a lock of wet hair off of his face and reached out to dry his hand on the hem of James’s towel. James fought an urge to seize the hand and kneel, to curl possessively over it. He twisted the knot of cloth at his hip tighter instead.
“Narrate it, then,” Q said, with an expansive gesture towards the base of the huge tree next to him. He folded his legs so he sat cross-legged, back straighter. “I’ll listen.”
James pulled his gaze away from the re-arrangement of slender limbs and peered up through the spreading canopy of the horse chestnut. “Ever climb this one?” he asked, considering the massive branches overhanging the grass, picturing Q jumping to grab one, swinging his legs after him. James wiped his palm on his towel, down to the spot Q had touched.
“Over the years, I’ve climbed most of them. Found nests and hives and cocoons,” Q replied. “Eaten fruit, gathered nuts. Some of the trees aren’t here any more. The inevitability of time, I suppose.”
James held out his hand, caught one of the blossoms fluttering down. He swept his foot through the grass. “No old conkers left,” he observed. “I used to be quite deadly with them.”
“The deer eat them,” Q said. “The gardeners clear any left off the grass.”
“I liked the feel of their shells,” James said, looking at the small flower in his hand. He opened his fingers and let it continue its fall.
“You brought your papers to share,” Q observed.
James smoothed the pages along his thigh, folded them in half, in half again and tucked them into a pocket. He pulled the zip of his fleece halfway up, tugged it partway down again.
“Your hands are restless,” Q said as James turned and sat by one of the largest roots of the tree.
James ran his hand along the raised gnarl, loosened the knot of his towel, straightened his legs. “I used to smoke,” he replied. He slipped his hand inside the pocket of the fleece, ran his fingertip over the surface of the stone he’d taken to keeping with him. Touching it had become a tic.
“It’s more than the echo of an old habit. You want to touch.” Q stretched out towards James, pillowed his head on James’s thigh and reached for his hand. “It’s distracting you not to touch,” Q said and placed James’s hand on his chest.
James’s muscles contracted. He didn’t look down, kept his eyes on the swath of light from the path to the shore, let the weight on his leg, the smoothness beneath his hand sink into his consciousness. He half-curled his hand, then flattened it back out against Q’s cool skin. There was a slight froth where the stream bubbled into the lake that he hadn’t noticed before. He could hear it and Q’s breathing and the buzz of insects high in the trees. James splayed his fingers, drew them together again. Q’s skin was warming under his hand, the heartbeat palpable. Its rhythm was soothing; the texture of Q’s skin was not. James stayed his hand, inhaled when Q’s chest rose, exhaled when it fell. James’s muscles began to uncoil. Could I find words for this rhythm? I’ve gathered so many words for you already.
Q turned his head, aligned the arch of his neck with the curve of James’s thigh. “Move your hand or keep it still, whichever helps most. I’ll close my eyes when you begin the tale,” Q said.
James startled at the voice. “No,” he said.
“No?” Q repeated, craning his neck to get a better look at James’s expression.
James finally looked down, didn’t meet the keen gaze there, focussed on the curve of Q’s throat, raised his hand to it. “Don’t close your eyes. It’s too much like death,” he explained. His voice became quieter. “And my duty is to guard your life.”
“The king never sleeps?” Q asked.
James’s fingers brushed along Q’s neck, lingered over the pulse. “No, of course you must sleep, but where you’re safe,” James answered matter-of-factly. “Where I know you’re safe,” he finished, almost as an aside.
“Describe it to me,” Q said and his words were distinct, like pebbles dropped into still water.
James felt their ripples; his gaze sought the lake before he began. “There is a tower overlooking the sea,” he said, voice low, fingers still. “Where its dungeons were carved from the rock, streaks of iron stain the cliffs. Nothing grows where the blocks for its walls were hewn from the plateau. Salt shines in the sharp cracks.
“The king’s words were quiet.” James tilted his head. “I heard his discourse,” James said, his eyes closing, “felt the warmth and weight of him when he slept; felt him grow cooler and lighter as the moon waned.” James’s hand slipped back down onto Q’s chest. “And I understood.” James took a deep breath and re-opened his eyes.
“There were songs and orations in the hall, proposals and exhortations in the council chambers, whispers beneath the stairs. In a few quiet corners, there was weeping. I listened and knew who had made the king a beggar in his own land. When the stones canted or fell or closed one against the other, all their cries sounded much the same.”
There was almost a sneer to James’s words. He kept his eyes fixed on the lake, the muscles of his jaw working beneath his skin. He swallowed.
“The oak spewed sawdust when it cracked, the iron hinges squealed. The king barely turned his head. Another crash echoed along the corridor and then a third. He deigned to look, but not to rise, the empty doorway unenticing. The patter of small stones from the high ledges earned an upwards glance, nothing more. A fissure opened by his feet. He stood, then, hand upon the wall and sighed.
"The splintered edges of the dungeon door caught at his robe as he walked over it. A torch sputtered by the broken wood at the bottom of the stairs. Grey light from the courtyard slanted over the hanging fragments of the door near the top of the steps.
"A huntsman, twin pheasants in hand, stared wide-eyed before dropping to his knees on the courtyard cobbles when the king emerged. His eyes flickered to the long dagger at the man’s belt, but he did not pause until he came to the antechamber of the great hall. Two guards sprawled at awkward angles, dark puddles and heavy stones by their heads. The king’s glance followed the curve of the entryway, saw the two stones half filling the gaps in the arch, like a young child’s teeth. He looked forward again, lifting the grimy hem of his garment as he stepped over the bodies.
“The great hall was empty. The king passed from it to the council chamber. Carved stones were clustered amidst the shattered table and chairs. From the high windows, ruby and sapphire light coloured rock and bone. There were brains amidst the parchments. The king perused what could still be read of the plans for conquest and exploitation, the levying of troops and treasure, the sequestration of lands and goods, the breaching of treaties. His gaze rose. For several minutes, he watched the new petals unfolding at the groins of the ribbed vaults.”
James paused. The steam from the hot spring was skimming across the lake towards the shore.
“Violent,” Q remarked.
James glanced down and away again. “You know what I write for my day job,” he replied.
“Mm,” Q assented, shifting his weight and pulling a twig out from under his arm. “And then…”
James watched the plinth of the nearest statue disappear in the mist, leaving the nymph unanchored, poised to stroll away on the billows.
James took a deep breath and resumed.
“The king’s grisly rounds returned him to the courtyard. He found the huntsman waiting by the passageway to the kitchen, several men and youths behind him, a child with a bowl by his side. The huntsman nudged the child forward. He knelt; those behind him did the same and the king stopped. His eye roved over the bowed heads as though counting the small number the stones had spared. He watched the child’s careful progress, the bowl too wide for her to see her feet, saw a raised cobble sink before her bare toes. He tilted his head and looked into her wide eyes, fastened steadfastly on him and smiled at her. She lifted the bowl higher, her eyes growing wider. He took it and drank, handing it back half empty, a trace of a smile still on his lips along with a bit of cream. She bobbed without spilling any of the goat’s milk and backed away. He reached for his smallest finger as though to slip off a ring he found not to be there. His smile faded.
“Towards the others, he held out a hand, palm down. It was not a steady benediction. He curved the hand upwards and the men rose. A brawny man, standing next to the huntsman, held out a bunch of keys. The king took them, arm dropping to his side with a heavy jangle. He lifted his other arm, slowly swept it around the yard. The huntsman nodded his understanding of the instruction. With measured steps, the king walked to the tower door.”
James drew a long breath. The fog had crept over the grass. It wafted around his legs, warm and moist. Q rubbed his cheek against the terry cloth over James’s thigh, raised a knee, tilted his body away from the lake. James looked down to find Q regarding him. James drew his hand from his pocket, curled it under Q’s head, burrowing his fingers in the damp waves of hair. Q’s gaze didn’t waver. James leaned back and continued speaking.
“At the threshold of the tower, the king paused. A flickering torch accentuated the darkness below. It beckoned. He turned his head to glance up the stairs. What was above had become unknown.
“The upper rooms were deserted, their manuscripts apparently of limited interest. Through the arrow slits in the stairwell, the murmur of voices and the creak of barrow wheels rose from the courtyard; from the sea side came the susurration of the waves, the squalling of the gulls. As the tower narrowed far above the parapet, the stairs became a tight spiral, their stones increasingly pale, marked with the fans and coils of sea creatures long dead, quarried from deep below the plateau where the bones of the island had lain undisturbed for eons. On the penultimate floor, the king disturbed a scribe wielding his quill, reading stone at his elbow. The man peered over his shoulder, blinking. He slipped off his stool onto his knees. The king inclined his head and gestured to the stairway behind him. The man bowed his way to them and fled downwards.
“On the top landing, the king selected a key. His own had been silver gilt with a filigree bow, but the smith’s iron version worked as well. He opened the door slowly, surveyed the undisturbed rows of low shelves running beneath the ring of windows. He leaned back against the door. Cobwebs glimmered between the mantelpiece, supported by two crouching figures of Atlas, and the frame of the large mirror above it, flashing with the late afternoon sun. The stained glass in the stone fretwork above the windows threw rosettes of light across the room. The king held out a hand to catch one, watched the colours paint his fingers, saw the dark lines beneath his broken nails. He looked down at his soiled robe, his dirty feet. His brow furrowed. He walked to the mirror. His hand flew to his mouth. A sound escaped and his eyes darted to the windows as though to seek its origin. Grey clouds scudded east, leaving small patches of blue brightening the west. Gulls wheeled into view and away, their screeches fading as they dove. “Oh, to be free like you,” the king murmured, backing away from the mirror. “To glide through the air and hunt in the sea foam.” He looked down at himself again, swatted at the stains framed by the gold embroidery of his gown, tore at them, and finally ripped the heavy cloth over his head, whirling to unlatch a window and fling it out. It flapped in the wind like a monstrous bird before it snagged on a gargoyle on the roof edge and hung fluttering, a filthy curtain blocking the sky. The king leaned after it, clawed at it, without dislodging it. “Go,” he shouted, batting at it and panting. The sky grew darker. The wind lifted the garment, tossed it towards the sea and the clouds opened up.
“He slumped over the stone sill of the window, his ribs rising and falling against the slanted edge. The rain poured over him, soaking his hair and running down his back to the floor, he shivered, and I feared for my king.”
James’s palm pressed more firmly against Q’s chest. His fingers grasped the curve of Q’s skull, his knees drawing up to shift Q closer.
“The mantelpiece groaned when I moved. The floor echoed with each of my steps. I closed my arms around the king, mindful of the fragility of his kind. He didn’t struggle as I drew him back into the room, just sagged against me and shivered again. I had no warmth to give him.
“I flexed my fingers as I had seen him do and with only the tips of the digits, locked the window. At least I could shut out the wind. I lifted him. He was even lighter without his robe. He had closed his eyes. The rain dripped down his face and neck, but I dared not attempt to wipe it away. He raised a hand, skimmed it over me. ‘Smooth,’ he murmured. ‘In my madness, I have made you smooth.’ He smiled then, turned his face and rubbed it against the polished stone of my chest. ‘I’d rather die here than on the rocks below.’
“Oh, to have had him broken in my lap, I would have crumbled into the sea first. I had not risen to consciousness to have him relinquish it. His hand continued tracing patterns against me. In the dark, he had leaned against me when he spoke sometimes, his fingers running back and forth to the sound of his own voice. I had liked the feel of it. Sometimes he had pressed his cheek to the rough rock and wept. His tears had been warmer than the rain or the sea spray.
“So light he was in my arms. The gulls nesting in the cliffs hardly weighed less. I turned with him to seek what I could use to tend him. The room appeared to be special to him; it must contain things he needed, heat foremost and easily done. I set him in a wooden chair by the hearth, drew a footstool near for his feet and pulled down a cloak draped over the back of the chair to cover him. It was lined with dark fur and woven with vines and berries and birds. The ones with spread wings troubled me. I checked the windows before I knelt on the hearthstone and dragged my fingers across it. There were logs and kindling in the hearth, dusty and dry. Sparks flew from my fingertips. A few passes and the straw and twigs were smoking. I looked back at him. He had curled himself onto the cushions of the chair, head resting on the arm of it.
“He reached out and touched my shoulder, smoothed over the carefully-chiselled muscles there. ‘I am a clever madman who loves beautiful things,’ he said, glancing from me to my twin, ‘but I cannot take credit for dreaming you. Here, you and your brother have always been. The stonecarver made you beautiful, but who made you loyal and kind?’
“I spread my fingers. Hands were useful and I wanted to touch him in answer that he might know, but I feared my hand would be too heavy and that it was not true that I was kind. I had not taken him captive, but I had grown accustomed to having him. I wanted to return all of myself to him as was his right, but I wasn’t sure what I might do if he wanted to leave my rocky shores.”
James stopped speaking. His fingers had grown tighter in Q’s hair. He tried to unwind the tension. His body resisted.
“That’s your fear,” Q said.
The voice surprised James, didn’t seem outside of him. You mustn’t fly away, James thought.
“Because others have flown,” Q added.
The location of the voice settled in James’s lap. James exhaled, succeeded in letting go of some of the apprehension. He looked down. Q looked up, his brow smooth, his eyes on James.
The mist had crept up around them, condensing on their skin. There were beads of it in Q’s curls. It hid the lake, their limbs. James moved his hand, felt cooler skin beneath it, couldn’t see either.
“Some things glimpsed, can’t return to the unknown,” James said.
“What have you seen?” Q asked. His fingertips skimmed over the back of James’s hand, between the fingers, down to either side of the wrist and came to rest on the forearm.
James felt the weight of the hand through his fleece, wished he hadn’t put it on. The rough bark against his back would have been worth the feel of Q’s hand on his skin.
“Fire in the dark,” James replied and thought Q blinked slowly. “Moonlit skin sullied.” James’s looked away, didn’t want that image overlaying what was before his eyes. The fog had shrouded all but the closest trees. “The flash of a sword,” James continued. Q exhaled. “You knew I was here that night with Claude.” James felt Q’s nod. “I saw red. Raw and sharp-clawed.” James took a deep breath. “Even knowing what you were doing, I saw it in the amphitheatre the next day. It’s why I couldn’t stay.”
“Why you’re looking away now. You prefer strength,” Q said quietly.
“Do I?” James asked. His hand was drifting over Q’s skin, around the ribs. I could carry you.
“Its loss distresses you,” Q continued.
“The strong can leave,” James replied. His head made a faint thump when he let it fall against the tree. The sound resonated in the still air. The mist was rising though it, the chestnut’s smaller branches disappearing into it. He took a deep breath, found the sound reassuring. Q's ribs rose and fell beneath his hand. James tightened his fingers.
“The castle freed the king,” Q said.
“From the dungeon, yes.” Bark rasped against James's head as he tilted it further back. He couldn't find the sky. “I don’t prefer to be alone,” he said.
“Come back into the lake,” Q answered and stood. Behind him, water burbled.
James stared up at the dark halo of Q’s hair, the sharp outline of his body softened by the fog, before he focussed on the outstretched hand and took it. James yielded to the upward pull of it, more force behind the grasp than such a slender arm should provide. Q released the hand, held James with a gaze more the colour of stone than of leaf in the shrouded light. James’s hand found his pocket, closed around the rock there. Q’s eyes followed the motion.
“Let me see,” Q said, his tone gentle and irresistible. James held out his open palm. Q tapped the misshapen geode. “I had thought you would have broken it open by now,” Q said. Reflexively, James closed his fingers around it. Q ran a fingertip over James’s fist. “I shouldn’t have,” Q said, his hand dropping to his side. “If you wish, you may carry me to the water.”
For a moment, James wondered if he had spoken his observation aloud, but there wouldn’t have been any need to reiterate his desire. “It’s not too hot?” he asked instead, his eyes on Q’s, his hand tucking the rock away. “I can hear it.”
“All the springs are gushing,” Q said, turning and pausing. “Listen. Each has a distinctive sound.”
James didn't think he could tell the difference, but the turbulence of the water sounded as though it was increasing.
Q took a step into the mist. “We can stay near the shore, by the stones.”
“Wait,” James said, shrugging off his fleece. Q took another step. The mist embraced him. “Wait,” James repeated, throwing down his towel and following. His hand slipped around Q’s waist, sliding over the moist skin. The grass was wet beneath James’s feet as he bent to curve his other arm behind Q’s knees. The fog was thick almost to his chest. When he stood, Q appeared to float in his arms. “You’re even lighter than I imagined.”
“Lighter than the nesting birds?” Q asked, raising an arm to drape loosely over James’s shoulder. James shook his head and took a step towards the hidden lake. Warm water washed over his feet sooner than he expected. Grass gave way to pebbles which sank into mud as cool water swirled about his calves, his knees, his thighs. “What else have you imagined?”
“That you would fly away,” James answered into the mist, only Q’s weight attesting to his presence.
“Fly or fall?” Q probed.
James’s arms tightened. “Fly. But either way I thought you wouldn’t be coming back.” Hot currents snaked about his waist and James hesitated.
“Deeper,” Q urged.
James lifted Q higher, the water taking most of his weight as it covered James’s elbows. He took another step, slipping down a slick slope. Steam hissed, hot drops fell through the mist. James released Q’s legs, tightened his grip around his back. “Are you sure?” James asked.
Limbs enfolded him, a leg about his waist, a hand at the back of his neck. James shut his eyes, let the firm pressure across his hips flow along his bones. James drew in a humid breath, cradled the extra weight and leaned into it.
Q’s feet no longer touched the lakebed. One arm stretched out along a stepping stone, as he pushed back against James, a solid heat in the simmering water. Small waves splashed as James moved faster, droplets coursing down his face. He clutched at Q’s back, felt it arch, groaned at the grip of his thighs and sunk his teeth into the muscle of Q’s shoulder. Q gasped and the pulse between them was hotter than the rippling water. James heard his own voice. He knew not what words he said, only that his tongue tasted salt and flesh and sensed the wild beat of another heart against his own.
“James!” Q panted. “Out! Now!” The urgency in Q’s tone pierced the haze in James’s mind. It took him an instant to recall the direction of the shore. During it, a growl echoed across the lake. James hunched and turned, Q clutched against his side as their feet found purchase. The water thrashed. The mud slithered beneath James’s toes, the pebbles vibrated, the sod shimmied. They ran towards the trees, Q’s steps slightly ahead. Q pushed James into the woods, crouched behind the chestnut tree, tugging James down with him. The tree swayed, the ground groaned. James flung himself over Q, grabbing the tree trunk in front of them. The fog thickened. The water bubbled and spat before exploding from the lake with a roar.
James leaned against the white doorframe, rested his head on his folded arms. He turned it to watch Q walk across the greenhouse. Neither of them had bothered with clothes yet. Under the fluorescent lights, the bite purpling on Q’s shoulder showed vividly against his skin. The blood rose in James’s cheeks. At least he didn’t see any burns. With a crisp snap, Q broke a stem of aloe off a large plant on the table by the far wall. An eclipse of moths fluttered against the glass. Q turned around with a graceful pivot. James gazed. You are fair. Dangerous and fair. James buried his face in the crook of his arm.
“It shouldn’t hurt much,” Q said. Lightly, he rubbed the pulp of the aloe over the red splotches on James’s back. James flinched. “The leaves took the worst of it,” Q commented. He brushed his lips over one of James’s shoulder blades before he attended to the burn at the base of James’s spine. James inhaled sharply. “But you took the rest.” Q crouched, smoothed the pulp over a pink streak on James’s calf. “These shouldn’t scar, like my father’s did.” He stroked the skin behind James’s knee and stood. “The castle protected the king.”
James looked over his shoulder. “Family tradition, nearly being boiled alive?” Q drew away. James’s hand darted out, closed around Q’s arm. James felt the muscles tense. He let go.
“Still want to risk injury trying to protect me?” Q asked, his eyes on James.
“You got us out in time,” James replied, “and you don’t have any burns.” He tapped Q’s shoulder near the bruise. “I’m sorry I did that.”
Q glanced at the darkening oval. “They’ll all fade,” he said quietly.
“The memories won’t,” James replied, outlining the shape with his finger.
“You’ll turn them into something else and that is what you’ll remember,” Q said.
James sighed. “It’s my fantasy, that I might be able to protect...” He pressed his lips together. “I started several poems about sprites and fauns…”
Q huffed. “The garden is full of their statues, and the frescos…it’s not surprising.”
“That I’m unoriginal?” James asked. He considered taking his hand away. Demon.
Q looked down at his arm, watched the figure eight James was tracing elongate. “And I didn’t mean that you’re unoriginal, just that the imagery is here.”
James’s finger trailed down Q’s arm. “So. You’ve been working on quantifying what happens with the lake? Explaining it away?” James looked up.
“Explaining it, yes. Not necessarily explaining it away.” A faint smile lifted Q’s lips as he regarded James. “Why aren’t you running from this?”
“I told you. My fears are of a different sort,” James stated, his fingers hovering about Q’s hand. Some of the moths had come in at the door. They darted towards the fluorescent tubes and Q, his skin pearly in the artificial light. One alit on Q’s shoulder, opening and closing its wings. Sorcerer. Necromancer. The images paraded through James’s head. James’s finger ghosted up the inside of Q’s arm. Incubus. “Are you sending me away?”
Q’s smile grew a little. “Not if you wish to stay,” Q said and stepped closer.
“I’m a castle. It’s my nature to stay,” James said. To hold. To keep. James’s fingertips slid up to Q’s shoulder. The moth flew away. To imprison. Q leaned nearer still. His mouth was wine red. Young and so fair. James’s lips parted, but he didn’t say the words.