Elatha Mac Delbaeth was a careful man, otherwise he would never have survived as long as he had as king of the Fomorians. There were rumors about him, rumors that Sreng couldn’t confirm but didn’t doubt. He knew better than anyone what men were willing to do for power. Despite what some of the Fomorians said in hushed voices in crowded halls, he was no one’s fool, much less Bres’s. He put on a fantastic show when he lectured Bres on the finer points of kingship, but, at the end of It, he’d go to Ireland anyway because a son on the throne would be a link too tempting for him to ignore. (Sreng had his doubts that Elatha’s frustration with Bres stemmed just from a personal sense of disappointment. He’d been a little too keen on Bres’s position, a little too knowledgable, but Sreng would never hurt Bres by bringing it up in whatever time they could steal, not when Bres’d just found his father after so long.)
No, Elatha knew exactly what he was doing.
And, because he was a careful man, he ran Bres ragged, sending him off to meet with the Fomorian kings, running errands for him, keeping him distracted. He’d be home for a few days or so, then he’d be back to either the waves or the road, and Sreng wouldn’t see him again for a month or so.
Winter was different. With the winter, Elatha ran out of options, and Bres would be home for the season.
“Quit your fussing,” Semne said, batting at Sreng’s hands as they nervously fiddled with his brooch. “You’d almost think you were going to meet your lover.”
“The King of the Fomorians’ son is coming back, he’s one of our most trusted allies. I’m here for that. We need to show that the Fir Bolg are still strong in our exile.”
“Which he had no small part in,” Sithbrug appeared around the corner, tossing Sreng’s favorite (only, these days) torque to him.
Sreng caught it, fastening the gold ring around his neck, the two wolf’s heads gleaming atop the twisted metal. It was useless arguing with Sithbrug about the finer points of Tuatha dé politics. “He’s here now, we’re here, and we can use all the help we can get.”
“My little brother’s become a politician.”
“I had some gain from being in King Eochaid’s house for so many years. Now, how do I look?”
Semne paused, pretending to analyze him. “I don’t know, Sithbrug, do you think he’s fit to represent us?”
“I’ll say you look fine. Give Eochu Bres our regards, tell him to treat our little brother gently the first time.”
Sreng elbowed Semne. “Oh, out with you.”
If only they knew how late they were to be talking about first times.
It seemed like it took forever for the ship to come onto the horizon, longer still to reach the shore and for Bres to jump down, seawater splashing around him.
His mother greeted him first, wrapping her arms around him. “Eochu, how are you?”
“Glad to be back, mother. Have the children-?”
As if in answer, Ruadan, Indusa, Brian, Dui, Cet, and Triall swarmed around him and Sreng could barely hide the smile that crept along his face at the sight. “Da! Da!”
“Have you been good for your gran?” Bres asked, picking up Indusa.
She smiled. “Of course, Father.”
“Oh yes, I know that look, and it says anything but that. Mother, how have they really been? Am I surrounded by liars?”
Eriu threw her hands up. “They behave as well as they can, under the circumstances.”
“Hm, I knew it.” He sat Indusa down, ruffling her red-gold hair. “Liar.”
It was then that he turned to see Sreng standing there, and everything, the sound of the waves crashing along the shore, the children (who had quickly decided to chase each other around the beach), the gulls squawking as they flew over the waves, Bres’s parents, faded away and it was just like it had been before Magh Tuireadh. It was just them, together, with nothing but less than a foot between them.
“Sreng…” Bres swallowed, then gripped Sreng’s arm. “My heart is gladdened to see you, old friend.”
“As is mine to see your safe return.”
These were the polite words of diplomacy, the type to be exchanged between a king’s son and the king of another people, and they felt wrong on his tongue even as he knew it was the game they’d have to play for as long as they were with the Fomorians, for Bres’s sake if nothing else. For Bres's sake and Bres's sake alone, he'd be the diplomat.
These niceties were quickly shuffled away by the intrusion of Bres’s father. As soon as Bres saw him, he dropped Sreng’s arm and tensed, his countenance turning into that of a deer locking eyes with a hunter.
Elatha’s smile didn’t reach his eyes as he greeted his son. “So, Bres, I trust that we are still in good standing?”
At his father’s words, Bres straightened up, relaxing his face into something resembling disinterest. “I hope so; I only caused four minor skirmishes. Also, if you hear any word from King Indech, I had no part in it whatsoever; it was a...minor misunderstanding, nothing more. And give my apologies for his hall; it was truly a sight to behold while it lasted.”
Bres dipped his head. “No need to worry, Father. We remain in good standing; everything went according to plan and I couldn’t be happier to be back.”
Elatha gave a pat on Bres’s shoulder that was devoid of warmth. “Good, good.”
Bres’ whispered promise of “Tonight” in his ear as they were walking back filled in what diplomacy never could.
The next few hours passed by in increasing agitation, as Bres duly showed up by his father’s side in the Great Hall, giving smiles that didn’t entirely meet his eyes to all the necessary people, and Sreng found himself drawn in by how smoothly he could pass from person to person even as he passed pained looks to Sreng when no one else was looking. Sreng was lucky, he supposed, in the sense that no one ever expected as much from him there. He’d only ever had to stand by, look intimidating, and lend his sword hand should the need arise. Nothing complicated. Sometimes, throughout the night, Bres would brush a hand across his shoulder or lean over a little too much. No one there would notice, but damn him, Sreng did, and he could scarcely wait for this to be over so that he could pin Bres against the nearest hard surface. Seeming to read his mind, his lover looked him in the eye, the smirk barely touching his mouth almost obscured through the heavy smoke of the longhouse as he raised a goblet to his lips.
It was times like this that Sreng could almost understand the Tuatha dé’s decision. By the gods of his tribe, he’d given his love to a frustrating man, but he’d never have had it any other way. And, when the torture was finally over and they had a moment alone, Bres made up for it in full, kissing him hard near one of the wooden, fur covered benches that lined the longhouse, the darkness and the smoke obscuring them to more prying eyes. The lack of privacy excepted, Sreng could admit to a certain thrill from it as they both tried to smother what noise they could even as they both dared each other to moan a little too loudly, exhale too sharply, so that even the faint rumble of thunder wouldn’t be enough to mask it. It was like he was a youth again, stealing what time he could in-between training sessions to experiment with other boys his age in the quiet places where King Eochaid would never look. (The morbid thought struck his mind that they were all dead now, along with almost everyone else in his generation.) Except for now neither one of them was playing, and he didn’t need clumsy gropes to know what touches would raise a reaction, even as he felt their time apart had made him under-appreciate just how good it was.
“I’ve missed you,” Bres murmured against Sreng’s lips, pressing small kisses against the corner of his mouth with each word.
“Things have not been right with me since you left,” Sreng found himself smiling against the touch of the other man’s lips. “Is my javelin in good form?”
“I never parted with it the whole trip. Even if I was exiled, I would never part with it.” Bres pressed a longer kiss to his jawline, briefly brushing his tongue against the edge. “Though your other javelin was never far from my mind.”
Sreng found himself rolling his eyes even as he leant into Bres’ kisses. “Awful.”
Bres huffed, the warm breath raising the flesh along his neck. “You have no appreciation for my brilliant mind.”
“Let me show you,” Sreng groaned, “How much I appreciate your mind.” And every part of him. Against the protest of his body, Sreng pulled himself free of Bres’ touch to push him onto the bench, the other man giving a muted chuckle as they both fell onto it together. Sreng focused all of his attention on learning every inch of his body again, hiking up his léine to expose as much skin as he could, licking, sucking, and biting as he pressed him onto the animal skins.
Gods, he could do this every day.
Sreng was interrupted by what he could have sworn was the faint sound of feet along the dirt floor.
He stopped what he was doing. “What was that?”
Bres arched against him. “Probably nothing. Sreng…” The darkness obscured the look on his face, but Sreng could hear the catch in his voice, the need. Gods, he wanted nothing more than to return to him, but he also couldn’t stand the thought of Bres’ reputation being torn apart if they were discovered. A foreign king of a conquered people might be able to escape with little enough shame, or at least no more than their defeat had already caused them, but Elatha’s son could never have that taint of scandal. And he could never wake every morning afterwards knowing he’d been the cause of that disgrace, of Bres losing his last chance at his dream, of the possibility of a shared future for them.
Sreng placed a kiss against Bres’ neck, smoothing down his léine as he did, so that if there was someone there, they would have little to destroy them with, only two well-established friends sharing warmth on a cold night. “A moment, love.”
“Very well, if it makes you feel better.” Bres knew he was right, ultimately. People could say what they wanted about him as a leader, as a king (and, perhaps, occasionally, Sreng would agree with them in private), but Eochu Bres Mac Elatha was no fool. But, sometimes, he needed a nudge into sense, even if it earned the one who did it a very annoyed huff as they sat up together.
Precious moments passed, and Sreng began to see Bres' point, especially as Bres, in his boredom, began to press long kisses against his neck as the steady beat of rain continued to pour down and the thunder continued to rumble outside, low and ominous. “Are you satisfied?”
Perhaps the years had made him more wary, perhaps in the dark his ears, missing the help of his eyes, were keen to pick up whatever sound they could, perhaps it was nothing more than a farm animal shifting in its sleep. Perhaps someone was just getting up to go to the outhouse, the wine from the meal earlier taking its toll on his bladder. Anything was possible in a longhouse.
He was about to turn back to the more urgent matters that he’d neglected, only to hear the hesitant sound of a young voice in the dark. “…Da, are you there?”
At the sound of Indusa’s voice, Bres immediately went from passionate lover to concerned, doting parent, moving over to his daughter and scooping her up in his arms before sitting down beside Sreng again, causing Sreng to feel as if he’d just been thrown by a horse at a trot into some mud on a clear day. He loved that Bres loved his children, he did, he was glad that Bres was taking advantage of the opportunity that neither of their fathers had had the ability or the inclination to use. He loved how happy Bres was with them, how the stresses of his position faded away in their presence (though how much of that was natural and how much was Bres trying to keep them under the illusion of normalcy for as long as he could was something that was never far from his mind). He loved that the children were comfortable enough to call him “Uncle,” especially as it seemed increasingly unlikely that, in the state the Fir Bolg were in, he would ever have children of his own, seeing as no father with a brain would betroth his daughter to a landless king with no prospects of his own and little hope of changing his standing.
But sometimes, it was damned inconvenient.
“I’m here, I’m here. What is it, Indusa? Did you have a nightmare? Do you need me to chase off the monsters?”
“The thunder. It’s so loud.”
“Oh, the thunder’s frightened you, hasn’t it?”
There was a corresponding sound of assent. “I’m sorry for coming in.”
“What about your brothers?”
“They’re scared, too, though they don’t want to admit it. They’re too busy pretending to be brave warriors. What is it with boys, anyway? They’re so stupid.”
A soft chuckle from Bres. “They think that being brave means not being afraid, when some of the best warriors I’ve ever known have been afraid.”
“Do you ever get afraid?”
A long pause, punctuated only by the sound of the thunder in the distance. “Every day.” On impulse, Sreng’s hand shot out to grab his, settling over Bres' hand as it ran small circles around Indusa’s back. And then the tone of his voice lightened, and Sreng wondered if Indusa could hear the way his voice seemed to tighten as he forced himself into carelessness. “But this is dark talk. Look at you, oh look at you, you’re shaking.”
The hand that had been focused on Indusa’s back attempted to clasp onto Sreng’s awkwardly. “Sreng…”
“You know you don’t need an explanation, Bres. Take care of your daughter, I’ll sleep elsewhere.”
“You don’t have to go.” Even without being able to see his face, Sreng knew the expression there, probably half-hidden by Indusa cuddling as close as possible: Brow raised slightly as he leaned in closer to him, eyes intent on him. And he knew, with Bres asking him, in his own way, that he couldn’t leave him.
A few moments later found Sreng lying on his back (for all that he tried to respect the Northerners’ customs when possible, he had no love of their way of sleeping, propped against the wall, his back hard against the wood or, if their host was wealthy, as Elatha was, a pillow that could cover the contact), Bres by his side, and Indusa between them, her small body rising and falling with each of the deep breaths she took as sleep claimed her.
Then Sreng heard another pair of footsteps, slightly heavier, but less certain, and the drag of something wooden along the floor.
Bres stirred from where he relaxed close to Sreng. “What is it, Dui?”
“Indusa’s gone. I felt her leave some time ago, but hasn’t come back. I can’t find her anywhere.” Despite the boy’s best efforts, he couldn’t keep the shaking out of his voice as he added, “I thought I heard wolves howling outside.”
“That was just the wind, son,” Bres said. “Indusa’s right here, sound asleep.”
“Were you scared by the storm as well?”
Already, Sreng could see where this was going. Best to deal with it now. “Come on, then.”
“Really, Uncle Sreng? Da?”
“It’s hardly fair to leave you to fend for yourself when your sister’s already here,” Bres said.
“We won’t leave you to yourself. Put your cane away and lay yourself down here.” Sreng’s earlier purpose in this bed put aside, he could never leave a boy as young as Dui alone and afraid in a storm, especially not with his eyesight. He knew all too well what that was like, and he’d never wish that on the son of his own worst enemy, much less Bres' son, the boy who he had seen grow from the time he could barely walk, helping him take his first steps when Elatha had questioned why it would even be necessary, when the boy should have been drowned at birth. (It had been the only time, to date, that he had seen Bres truly, deeply angry at his father, when normally he hid any irritation he felt amidst the hope behind a sort of nonchalance, as if Elatha could never hurt him if he could make the world believe he didn’t care. Bres told him later, in private, through clenched teeth that he had made it clear to his father that whatever he felt for him, the children were his and they would be left out of it. He’d not heard a whisper more from Elatha on the matter since. Sreng had never been prouder.)
The boy snuggled in tightly next to his father, who stroked Sreng’s arm lightly in silent thanks.
“Hey Uncle Sreng?” Dui asked, “Why are you in Da’s bed, anyway?”
“Oh,” Sreng said, raking his mind through excuses. “I was-Well, really-“ He’d never been a good liar, and it was something that Eochaid had exploited at every opportunity.
“He was frightened by the storm, too,” Bres said, kissing his son’s dark hair. Sreng quietly gave thanks to whatever gods could care that he’d give his love to an excellent liar.
“Exactly. The storm.” Sreng said.
He knew that the three pairs of footsteps that followed would come long before he heard them.
“We were just coming to check in on you,” Brian said, with all the self-importance of his eight years, and even without seeing him, he could imagine the boy’s chest puffing up. “We wouldn’t want the others to be scared. After all, with Dui’s eyesight, one step into the dark and, the next day, we find him eaten by wolves and I get his chores. We’re not afraid.”
“My fearless champions,” Bres said, and Sreng could hear the humor just beneath the surface. Of the six siblings, Brian was the most daring, the most eager to prove himself. He was the one who carried the most of Bres in his appearance, short golden hair and eyes that were already promising to be pale and sharp and fierce, every inch of him the descendant of Neit (Sreng wasn’t sure if he believed the rumors that Neit was a war god, that his presence inspired men to do battle with one another, but, then again, he wouldn’t have believed in the Tuatha dé in another time. He was willing to stretch his beliefs a little further yet.) But, for all of his posturing, he was a boy yet and a boy for some time to come, and unlike the Tuatha dé, Bres would not force him to be more than that.
Triall and Cet, they were the two who Sreng had less of a fix on, mainly because wherever Bran went, they followed. He would hear the three of them sometimes talk among themselves, or with their other siblings, but around him? They weren’t so sure. Maybe it was that they had some years behind them in the Tuatha dé, growing up on stories of the Fir Bolg and the terrible, hulking man who’d cut off Nuada’s arm, a shadow in Ireland’s history who had somehow impacted their entire lives. Maybe it was that he was new, and they’d little idea what to do with him, especially since they had a father and a grandfather already. Or maybe it was still that they were shy and that they hadn’t come into their own yet. He might have been the same, if circumstances hadn’t forced him into something else.
“Do you want to stay here?” Bres asked, and Sreng could practically see the little raise in his brow. “It would save you from having to check again.”
“I suppose, what do you two think?”
Triall and Cet both quickly gave their assent, and within a few seconds they were all piled in together, the three of them crawling across Sreng to get in-between him and Bres.
“Ugh! You’re on my foot!” Brian said, the resulting groan from Dui showing his swift response.
“Stop kicking me! I wouldn’t be on your stupid foot if you’d get on your side!” Came the retort.
“You spread out!”
“I do not!”
“You do!” Cet jumped in.
“Oh, shut up. This isn’t about you,” Brian said.
“And he snores,” Triall added, causing Cet and Dui to snicker.
Brian shoved him.
“Dui, get off his foot. Brian, if you don’t stop quarreling with your brothers, I’ll have you sleep alone. And Cet and Triall…don’t antagonize him,” Bres said.
“Yes, Da,” they all said, in unison.
From the other side of the bed, across the squirming children, he could see the faint, affectionate roll of Bres' eyes.
They stayed in silence for a time after that, the only sounds the rainfall and the low roll of thunder in the distance.
“Grandfather says that the thunder is Thor riding across the sky in his chariot,” Triall said, and Sreng could practically see the other boy’s chest puff up.
“I wish he’d do it someplace else,” Brian said, “I want to sleep. We have chores in the morning.”
“It keeps the trolls away. None of them would dare come out when Thor is present.”
“I’d fight a troll if he kept me from my sleep,” Brian murmured, and it would have been more convincing if it wasn’t immediately followed by soft snoring.
Something kept Sreng from going to sleep, though. There was something wrong with this, and it wasn’t until Bres opened his mouth that he realized it. “Where’s Ruadan?” The oldest son of Bres was the only one missing, and it showed, even if it took a moment to understand it. Something felt missing, something important that they all couldn’t make up for, even together.
“Oh,” Triall yawned, “He’s off in his own bed, brooding. He didn’t want to come here.”
“He should be here.”
Bres moved to get up, navigating his way through the various lumps in the bed of different sizes and levels of awareness, but Sreng held him back. “I’ll go get him,” he said, “I’m nearest to the floor.”
“Are you sure?” Bres asked.
“He’s your eldest son, isn’t he?” Sreng said. If the others were going to be there, there was no reason why the eldest should be left out.
Lightly, he walked across the cool dirt floor of the longhouse to where Ruadan sat up, the boy looking up at him as he approached.
“You know they’re not really scared,” he said, “They just want to get Da’s attention.”
“I guessed,” Sreng sat down. “Sometime around when Dui walked in.” It was a sound strategy: Choose the one who’d be most likely to get their father to agree to it, then steadily send in the rest until they were all there. It was the kind of thing Bres would’ve done, if he’d had a childhood and siblings to share it with.
“I’m not like them, you know. I can be strong, if I want.”
“No one here doubts it,” Sreng said, adding, “I’ve seen you in the training yard. You fight well. You remind me of your father, when he was younger.” He didn’t say that, while Brian inherited his father’s looks, Ruadan inherited the desperation, the drive that had almost destroyed Bres early on, the soul of the man he held dearer than anything else in the world looking at him from behind Bríg’s red hair and freckles. Ruadan was young, still. And he had a loving family, whereas Bres only had his mother before he had the children and Sreng. It was different. He’d grow to be a great hero yet, without having to learn the lessons Bres had along the way.
“I don’t want to let him down. Or grandfather.”
“You won’t,” Sreng said, “I trust in that much. Your father actually wanted to come get you, but I offered instead.”
“He…really did?” Ruadan asked.
“I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?”
He shook his head. “You wouldn’t. Uncle Sreng…” He paused. “I know it’s none of my business, but are you and my da friends or...something else? I won’t tell if you are.”
“What would make you think something like that?”
“I don’t know. The way you look at one another, the way you act. Father didn’t really like anyone in Ireland, but he lets you stay around, and when he gets back, you’re always so happy to see him, and you touch a lot. And you always try to share each other’s bed, even when it’s warm out, and you’re staying with him even when my brothers and sister are probably taking up the whole place, which I don’t think anyone would do just for a friend. It’s all things that work out just fine for friends on their own, but put together it seems off. Like you’re in love with each other.”
“You’ve already found the answer for yourself,” Sreng said, “You’ve no need for me to confirm it.” He sighed, “Your father is my best friend in the world. And of everyone in the world, I’ve loved him best and longest. And I think he loves me back; he’s said it enough.” The first time Bres had admitted it had been their first night together, after he’d come to Lochlann, a man in-between lands and peoples, newly ingratiated into his father’s favor. Sreng had scarcely believed the words, coming from him. Even when they’d had their first kiss, the man of the Tuatha dé had always seemed unattainable, and yet he’d laid there, a man the same as any other, and he’d said that he loved him and had for all the years they’d been apart. After that, he had steadily grown to accept it, the words being repeated, not often, but enough throughout the years to finally get him to know that he hadn’t been lost in a dream the first time.
“How did you know?”
“I didn’t. Things just…ran that way. And he had his ways of making it known, your father.”
“Oh.” Ruadan seemed disappointed, as if he’d expected Sreng to reveal some sort of life-changing secret to explaining how it was they had somehow ended up together. Almost like he’d once—
He wasn’t suited for this kind of talk. He’d have to get Bres alone at some point, tell him to make some time for a long, private conversation with Ruadan.
“Da-He really wanted me there?”
Sreng clapped an arm on his shoulder, “He did. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”
Ruadan slid out of the bench, Sreng joining him shortly after. “Well, if he asks for me, then I guess I have to go, don't I?”
“He is your father,” Sreng said, as they walked back to Bres’ bed together.
After Ruadan finally settled in, the bed now a tangled mess between Bres and the children, with Sreng trying to find some part of it for himself, a huge, solid weight settled across his legs, pinning him down even as he tried to shift.
“Babgiter!” Cet said, petting the creature’s ears. “I think he likes you.”
Bres’ favorite pig and constant companion only huffed in response, his wet nose brushing against Sreng's hand.
At least he wouldn’t be cold.
He arose early in the morning, before anyone else in the longhouse would awake to see his presence in Bres’ bed.
Looking at Bres in the bed sprawled out with the children as the first pale light of morning piercing through the longhouse, hair still annoyingly perfect, he gave in to his urge to brush a kiss against his chin. “I love you, you know.”
“Stay…” Bres murmured groggily. “No one would think anything of it. My old friend sharing his warmth with me in the winter.”
Feeling the morning’s chill on him, it was tempting to curl back up next to him for however long he could, but he knew he’d have to be up soon, anyway. It was better to get started sooner rather than later. “I wish I could.”
Bres gave a slow, wry smile. “It’s not what we were planning for, was it?”
“It wasn’t, but your children needed their father. I can’t find fault with them for that.”
Bres opened his mouth to say something, but then decided on, “I swear I’ll make it up to you. I’ll take you hunting soon. Just you and me. No children, no entourage.”
“I accept your terms,” Sreng said, giving Bres one final, light kiss against his lips. “On one condition: This time around, we actually hunt something. I can’t keep coming up with excuses for why we’re not bringing home any kills when your father asks. They must think we’re the worst hunters in all the world.”
Bres carefully maneuvered his way around the children to lean up and give Sreng a small, close-mouthed kiss. “It’s a deal.”