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In The Forest (Burning Bright)

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“Fuck, shit, fuck,” Aaron cursed, tripping over yet another tree root. His guide; a man named Neil Josten who was hired by his lunatic of a cousin to take Aaron fifteen miles into the goddamn wilderness. The bastard didn't even bother to look back and make sure Aaron hadn't broken something.

“If you're going to curse at every tree in the forest, this is going to be a very long trip.” Josten had the gall to sound weary, the prick. As if it was Aaron's fault they were taking the most meandering, roundabout route to the glade where the precious wilding flowers grew. As if Aaron personally had butted into a private conversation and asked Josten to show him the way, instead of trying to hire a certified guide from the village.

“I'll curse at as many things as I please,” Aaron muttered. He adjusted the straps of his pack and took a moment to look around them.

This far into the Brocelin Forest, the foliage had deepened to a shining emerald green. The forest floor was a carpet of springy moss and sweet smelling grass, dotted here and there with patches of wild flowers. Aaron stopped from time to time to tuck away various herbs and blooms that caught his eye.

“What's that for?” Josten asked, lingering nearby as Aaron hacked at a particularly pungent smelling wormwood bush. He wrinkled his slightly crooked nose and stepped further away. Aaron didn't know why; wormwood was downright sweet smelling compared to other plants he dealt with.

“Reduces swelling,” Aaron finally answered. He tied the bundles together with twine and tucked them into his pack, taking care not to bruise the leaves. “Also helps with digestive issue and fever.”

Josten tilted his head, not unlike a bird as he looked at him. Aaron wilted under the scrutiny and turned away first. “What?” he snapped.

“You are very wise,” Josten said, as if there was nothing odd about him complimenting Aaron out of nowhere. As if they hadn't known each other practically their whole adult lives and Josten hadn't said one nice thing about Aaron in all that time. “I can see why old Genevieve took you on as an apprentice.”

“She was just tired of being woken in the middle of the night to deliver babies,” Aaron muttered as he hitched his pack back up onto his shoulders and looked out over the horizon.

They were making good time, as far as he could tell, and maybe that meant that Josten's estimation of a week long journey would end up being wrong. Not that Aaron minded being in the woods, not at all. But current company left something to be desired…

Josten didn't seem to be in a big hurry to keep going. “It's going to be dark soon." He settled against a tree and fixed Aaron with a wry grin. "We'll camp here tonight.”

Aaron huffed, dropping his pack back down to the ground. “You couldn't have said something before I picked that back up? It weighs a ton.”

“You're the one who kept stopping to pick up every nut, twig, berry and mushroom he sees.” Neil ripped up a bit of sweet grass and tossed it lazily in Aaron's direction. Aaron batted it away and glanced at the nearby stream.

It wasn't shallow, just deep enough for a few fish to swim downhill towards the river. The current couldn't have been all that strong either judging by the amount of lilies growing on top of the water.

Josten followed his gaze and shrugged. “Bathe if you want, I'll get the fire going.” He stood with a lurch and wandered off into the trees, footsteps nearly silent. Aaron gave him a few minutes to disappear before he pulled his shirt off and set it aside.

Next came off the stiff leather jerkin his brother in law had fashioned him, lacing in the front and back to compress his chest as flat as possible. Aaron made sure to set that down as far from the water as possible. If the leather got wet, it would be ruined and Kevin would be cross about Aaron ruining yet another one.

Aaron eased his pants down his hips and kicked them in the same direction as his pack. He eased into the water gingerly, wary of sudden currents to sweep him away. If Aaron died naked in a shallow stream, Andrew would never let anyone forget it.

The water was cool, warmed enough by the summer sun to be tolerable. Aaron dunked under the water to wet his hair and scrub his fingers through it. There wasn't much point in washing without a cake of soap but Aaron hadn't really planned on getting clean so much as taking a dip to get rinsed off.

He rolled onto his back, letting the water buoy him up. His nipples hardened in the chill and Aaron closed his eyes. He was just starting to enjoy himself when the sound of a snapping twig reminded him that he wasn't alone.

Josten was watching him. He was standing at the edge of the treeline, arms full of kindling and just… looking. Aaron crossed his arms over his chest and ducked down in the water, cheeks pink.

“You shouldn't just watch people!” Aaron snapped, hating how shrill his voice got when he was angry. “You should have said something.”

Josten seemed to shake himself out of whatever odd state he'd fallen into. He snorted and knelt down to start building the fire pit. “We're both men here, why so shy?”

On the one hand, Aaron was immediately grateful that Josten still saw him as a man. On the other, he couldn't just go around staring at people. It was strange and off putting.

“You shouldn't stare at people,” Aaron repeated as he eased towards the bank. He hadn't planned for what to do when he got out. If he'd been alone or with his twin, he would have sunned himself dry on the grass. But Aaron didn't want to be so exposed in front of Josten, even if Josten didn't seem to mind it.

A length of terry cloth, worn and soft, landed in front of his face. Josten was still turned away, poking at the fire, but Aaron could see his pack as it laid open at his feet. Aaron took the cloth and wrapped it around his body as he stepped out of the stream. It hid enough for modesty's sake, the curves of his body not completely visible. But Josten's quiet indifference was soothing. He made it clear that he didn't care what Aaron did or didn't have between his legs.

“Thank you,” Aaron said softly. Josten grunted, occupied with the dried meat he'd pulled from some hidden pocket. He was chopping up wild mushrooms and some torn handfuls of herbs, adding them into the pot on the fire. It wouldn't be much, just porridge flavored with what nature could provide, but Aaron had eaten worse. “Not just for the towel, but also for taking me out here. I know Nicky didn't give you much choice.”

Josten raised an eyebrow. “You think Nicky could make me do anything I didn't want to do?”

“So you wanted to spend two weeks in the woods with someone you can't stand?”

“What makes you think I can't stand you?” Josten honestly sounded baffled. Aaron's chest puffed out in indignation.

“You— You— Everything! You talk about me like I'm stupid, you belittle my accomplishments at the clinic, you don't acknowledge me when I speak to you in town!” Aaron scowled, tucking the towel tighter around his body. “You once told me if I thought half as much as I scowled, I'd be as smart as the average pig.”

“I never said that!” Josten’s blue eyes were wide. “I— You—” He stopped, scowling into their dinner as he meticulously stirred it. “You look… like Andrew. It's hard to be nice sometimes.”

Aaron's heart sank a little. Everyone in the village knew the story by now but hearing it never got easier. Josten and Kevin had been childhood sweethearts, handfasted a year and a day before their formal wedding. They'd been deeply in love— Or so everyone thought. Then, one day, they dissolved their bond and Kevin announced that he was marrying Aaron's brother instead. Josten had taken the news with good grace and the three seemed close but people still talked.

They were silent, nothing but the snap of the kindling and soft calling of birds bedding down for the night. Aaron cleared his throat finally and stood up, taking his clothes to get dressed behind a tree. He pitched his voice to carry and said, as confidently as he could, “Do you want to talk about it?”

Josten snorted, loud in the twilight hush. “Gods, no. I think I'd rather have honey slathered on my face and lay in an ant hill.”

Aaron paused pulling his shirt on. “That is… oddly specific.” He tugged until everything was more or less where he wanted it to be. He tucked his jerkin into his pack to put on when he woke up and raised an eyebrow at Josten's red face.

He shrugged. “Kids do dumb dares for a laugh. Not a lot else to do so deep in the forest.”

Aaron bit down on the thousand questions he wanted to ask. Josten was a true child of the forest, raised in a treetop community of witches, shamans, rangers, hunters and trappers. Every facet of knowledge to be gleaned from the trees and glades had a place there, a glittering jewel hidden in plain sight. And hidden it was. Even Kevin had never been to Josten's home, had never met the men, women and others who raised the man he once intended to marry.

“You can ask, you know,” Josten’s voice was a quiet rumble that was almost lost in the crackling of the fire. “They don't forbid the sharing of knowledge, just the location of the homestead.” He poked the fire, banking the embers to deepen the twilight around them. He dished up the doctored porridge, adding a handful of shredded dried meat to the top.

Aaron took his gratefully and ate a steaming spoonful to distract himself from trying to ask too much at once. He finally settled on; “What was it like?”

Josten seemed startled by the question. “Not what I expected,” he muttered. He swallowed and thought for a moment. “I was never alone. Even when I was in the forest by myself, I was always comforted by the understanding that my family was nearby if I needed them. We slept—” He broke off with a wheezing sort of laugh. “We slept in these piles, all elbows and knees you know? Kids are basically puppies. All I ever had to do was open my eyes.”

“And now?” Aaron had similar memories of his own. Waking wrapped around Andrew, nose pressed to his twin's hair. Feeling Nicky's back rising and falling against his, knowing Erik was on the other side of Nicky and that he was between the three of them and anything that would come through their door. Aaron too, had grown up blessed with love.

Josten smiled, crooked and a little faint. “I have my friends. And my animals. I'm content.”

“Content is not happy.” Aaron scrapped his spoon against his bowl and thought about his words carefully. Nicky used to tease him for taking so long to speak when Andrew spoke every thought in his head. You got all the caution, little one, and your brother got none, he used to say. It's alright to think deeply, love, but don't get lost in there.

“Did they teach you your craft?”

“Which one? The wood working? The animal care? The herb lore and foraging? The hunting and tracking?”

“A simple yes would have sufficed.” Aaron set his empty bowl aside and started arranging his bed roll. At least Josten had the decency to find a spot with minimal roots and rocks. Aaron would be black and blue when he woke up regardless but he supposed it was the thought that counted.

As Aaron settled down to sleep, he allowed his thoughts to wander. He wondered why it bothered him so that Josten couldn't look at him without seeing Andrew. Why he cared at all. Josten was… He was complicated. Aaron had pitied him, hated him when Andrew would come home upset and shaking from the villager's angry words. Aaron had even, embarrassingly enough, fancied him once upon a time.

Of course, he reasoned to himself, all of that was long over by now. If he let his eyes trace the edge of Josten's profile in the fading light of the fire, well, that was no one's business but his.

🌿🌿🌿

Later, Aaron wouldn't be able to say what woke him. Maybe it was the loud crash of thunder overhead. Or the rush of water far too close, angry and growling. It could have been the splash of driving rain on his face like freezing needles. Maybe it was Josten's voice, strident and furious as he fought with the lashing of their tent.

Aaron scrambled to his feet, pushing his soaked hair out of his face. The stream, so gentle and slow this afternoon, had swollen to a raging river beside them and they were on low ground. Aaron pushed against the wind to catch at Josten's hands.

“Stop!” he yelled over the rain and wind. “Stop it, you can't fix it and we need to get to higher ground!”

Josten looked at him, fair red hair plastered to his forehead, and shook his head. “It's not safe! The gulf is too steep to climb, we have to wait it out.”

Aaron's heart sank, panic clawing at his chest. The gully they had camped in was surrounded by shallow but steep sides like Josten said but surely they could use the trees to climb up and escape? He was opening his mouth to suggest it when disaster struck.

The giant elm they had camped beside exploded in a shower of char and splintered wood. Aaron dived to the side, shielding his face as best he could. There was a line of burning pain down his spine but he couldn't care about that now. As he blinked away the after image of lightning from his eyes, Aaron realized with a sickening chill that Neil was gone.

Aaron ran to the bank, grabbed for an overhanging branch to stop himself from slipping in. He searched the churning water for something, some sign that Neil was there. A flash of red hair, a glimpse of his green cloak. Anything.

Panic was a wild thing in his chest, clawing and howling. Find him, find him, find him, it wailed. Find Neil! Aaron bit his lip until he tasted blood, forcing the wildness down. That wouldn't help Neil.

“Neil!” Aaron called, clinging to the branch, eyes scanning the water. Anything, any sign… Please, don't let him be dead, not him. “Neil, answer me!”

There! A faint yell, a flash of red and green and Aaron was running. He jumped into the water like an idiot, unprepared for the current and the cold like knives. He pushed the discomfort away and concentrated on not being swept downstream.

Neil was caught in a tangle of driftwood, half pinned under a heavy branch. His eyes were unnaturally bright, glazed with pain and fear in his white face. Aaron managed to hook his arm around a small branch and pull himself closer. He touched Neil's face with shaking fingers.

“Neil,” he whispered, voice weak with relief. Neil coughed, ending the noise in a choking groan. “Hold on, I'll get you loose.”

“No,” Neil gasped, clutching Aaron's sleeve. “No, you get out. You go.”

“No!” Aaron yanked his arm out of Neil's grip, glaring down at him. “Stop being a fucking martyr!”

A ghost of a smile flickered across Neil's lips. “Now you really d-do sound like Andrew.” He broke off coughing again. Aaron could hear a slight catch, a wheeze that he didn't like. “N-not that I th-think… think…” Neil trailed off, suddenly going limp.

Aaron spared the time for a quick prayer that Neil was only passed out and not dead before he climbed the rickety driftwood. If he pulled Neil free into the stream, they would both be washed away. But if Aaron could pull him free from the top, maybe, just maybe, they'd have a chance.

Aaron was strong for his size but Neil was heavier. It took many useless heaves and false starts before Aaron finally managed to get him loose and onto relatively safe ground. The urge to collapse on the bank was a strong one but they weren't safe yet. Aaron couldn't risk letting them get caught unawares again by the rising water.

He pulled Neil as gently as he could across his shoulders and, with no other options to speak of, started walking slowly and painfully up and out of the gully. Aaron's back and shoulders screamed under the unfamiliar weight but there was no way in hell he would leave Neil behind. It wasn't in him as a person, as a healer, and besides Neil was…

Aaron shook himself and kept walking. He felt Neil's shallow breathing, every ragged inhale and exhale against his skin, and he used those breaths to ground himself. If Neil was still breathing, then Aaron had a reason to keep walking. He had to get Neil somewhere safe.

🌿🌿🌿

It was pure chance that Aaron saw the cave at all. The rain was driving, the wind pushing it up and into his eyes until even Neil's face beside his was blurry. He stumbled towards the mouth of the cave and collapsed inside it.

Aaron rolled off of Neil, grimacing at the tightness in his shoulders. His hands were numb, shaking with pins and needles. He rubbed them to get the blood flowing back as he looked around.

The cave was clearly a waypoint for travelers. There was a small but tidy fire pit in the center of the space, the smell of fresh air telling Aaron that there was a place for the smoke to escape. There was even a neat stack of firewood against the far wall as well as a few threadbare blankets.

Aaron unfolded one and caught a whiff of woodsmoke and sweetgrass. Neil, he thought with a strange twist of longing in his chest. These were Neil's things, Neil's supplies. Aaron gathered the blankets and went back to Neil.

The first thing to do was get Neil out of his wet clothes and warm. Aaron tried not to pay attention to the body under his hands. Neil was lean, muscular but slim and much stronger than he looked. His skin, even paled from the cold, was still a lovely honey gold and he had… the most delightful freckles scattered across his chest.

Stop it, Aaron told himself. Stop looking at him, stop imagining him— Just stop!

Taking Neil's pants off presented yet another problem. Aaron wasn't modest, he was a healer and had seen plenty of naked men before. Just not… naked men he might have been possibly attracted to. But Aaron was a professional first and foremost and he was going to do everything he could to save Neil's life.

Once the undressing was finally done and Neil was wrapped in all the blankets, Aaron started a fire. He'd need to get the air in the cave warm as well as Neil's body. Aaron kept a hand on Neil's chest, feeling the rapid rise and fall of his breathing. He wasn't getting any warmer. There was no other choice.

Aaron stripped his own clothes off, laid them out to dry beside Neil's things next to the fire. He spared a brief thought to their packs still sitting in the gully and his leather jerkin soaking through. It would be ruined and Aaron would have to listen to Kevin complaining about Aaron's carelessness. Again.

Aaron pulled the blankets back, settling himself against Neil's side. At first, Aaron tried to keep a little distance between them, an arm across his chest, a knee drawn up. But it was silly. Neil was unconscious, he didn't care if Aaron was naked or not, let alone if he was pressed against him.

“This is only to keep you alive,” Aaron muttered, rearranging their limbs into a more comfortable sprawl. He ended up on his back, cradling Neil's body between his thighs. He wrapped his legs around Neil's, tucked his toes under Neil's shins. Aaron put his arms around Neil's shoulders and guided his head down to rest on Aaron's chest. He pulled the blankets up and over Neil's head to create a cocoon of warmth.

Neil made a small, content sound and nestled closer. Aaron carded his hands gently through Neil's hair, staring into the flames. He hummed softly, old songs Nicky used to sing when the twins were sick with fever and restless. Lulled by the steady sound of Neil's breathing and the flickering light of the fire, Aaron felt his eyes drift closed.

The rain had stopped when Aaron woke again. Water dripped from the mouth of the cave and the air had a damp chill to it. Neil hadn't moved much, maybe curled a little closer, pulled Aaron to him a little tighter.

Aaron felt his forehead. Cool, thankfully. Neil hadn't developed a fever despite his soaking. He made a small noise of contentment and nuzzled Aaron's collarbones. Aaron bit his lip and turned his head away.

He could feel Neil’s heart beat, strong and steady under his hand. Could feel his breath tickling the fine hairs at the back of his neck. Aaron took in a deep shaking breath and squeezed his legs together.

It wasn’t Neil's fault. He didn't know what he was doing to Aaron. He hadn’t meant to. Aaron rolled on his side, jostling Neil into wakefulness.

“Aaron?” Neil's sleep roughed voice slide down Aaron's spine like warm honey.

“Are you awake? Good.” Aaron struggled out from under the blankets, keeping his back to Neil. He pulled his shirt over his head, his pants up his hips. He could feel Neil’s eyes on him, making him shiver.

“Did you… save me?” Neil was still lying there, radiating warmth. Aaron pulled his eyes away from the shadowed line of Neil's stomach.

Aaron shrugged. “I did what anyone would do.” He slung the canvas bag propped in the corner across his back and turned around. “Now that you're awake, I'm going back after our things.”

“What? Wait, no-” Neil struggled to his knees, holding the blankets to his groin. “Aaron, it isn't safe.”

“I'll be fine. Stay put and wait for me.”

“Aaron!” Warm, calloused fingers gripped his wrist. “You can't go back to the valley. The water won't have receded yet.”

“So what? I should just accept that my things are gone?” Aaron demanded. “My herbs and my medicine kit? My jerkin?”

Neil sighed. “Aaron, I'm sorry but it's all gone. We won't find it again.” He sat back suddenly, face white. He was holding his ribs and Aaron saw, with a sinking feeling, that Neil's entire torso was black and blue.

Aaron scrambled to his knees, throwing the bag aside. There had been nothing medicinal in the entire cave but if he needed to, Aaron could improvise. He pressed his hands against Neil's chest and stomach gently.

“How does it hurt? Dull and aching or hot and sharp?”

“I-I don't know,” Neil gasped. His eyes were bright, glassy. He winced as he tried to breathe deeper. “Sharp?”

“That's not good,” Aaron muttered to himself. He pressed over the worst of the bruising, a vivid splash of violet across Neil's right side, and was rewarded with a yelp. He winced in sympathy. “You have broken ribs, definitely…”

Aaron turned to the spare blankets and started cutting them into long strips with Neil's knife. They weren't quite rigid enough to hold Neil's bones in place but if he layered them enough, they might hold until they found help.

“Lift your arms— I know it hurts, Neil. Just enough that I can move around you.” Aaron wrapped Neil's torso carefully, applying firm but gentle pressure. It wouldn't be comfortable but maybe it would stop things from shifting and potentially making things worse.

Neil winced, letting his arms down. His posture was stiff now, pain and the wrappings holding him straighter than he usually sat. Aaron reached out without thinking and put a hand on his chest, rubbing soft circles into the skin.

“Aaron?” Neil said quietly, watching Aaron's hand on him.

Aaron pulled back like he'd been burned, cheeks pink. “You won't be comfortable, but you're alive so that's really all that—”

Neil caught Aaron's hand in his and pulled it back to his chest. He held it over his heart and said, “Thank you. For saving me. You could have easily left me behind. I won't forget this.”

Aaron couldn't breathe. Neil was too close to him. How had they gotten so close? Aaron's eyes drifted shut at the first brush of Neil's lips against his, soft as a butterfly's wing. He gasped and Neil pressed closer, kissing Aaron's open mouth.

Aaron's head was spinning. This was all too much, so fast. He'd never dared to dream that… that Neil might want him too. That all the sniping and griping they did had hidden meaning for Neil as well.

He pulled back, holding Neil off even as he tried to chase Aaron's mouth. “You aren't just kissing me because I saved your life?”

Neil chuckled. “I've wanted to kiss your smart mouth for years.”

His hands, calloused and warm, cupped Aaron's cheeks and reeled him back in to Neil's clever lips. Aaron lost track of time, lost in the feeling of Neil's mouth, his hands, his tongue. He startled as Neil pressed closer, bearing him back into the cave floor.

“Wait, wait,” he said, pushing Neil back gently. Neil made a small unhappy noise but stayed put. Aaron pushed them back the other way, easing Neil onto his pallet of blankets.

“What's wrong?” Neil looked up at him, blue eyes steady. His hand was now on Aaron's hip, fingers dipping under the fabric of his shirt. “Did I hurt you?”

Aaron shook his head. “Idiot,” he said fondly. “You can't bend like that. You'll hurt yourself.” Biting his lip with a daring he didn't feel, Aaron reached down and pulled his shirt up, baring himself to Neil's gaze. “Let me do the work.”

Neil's eyes went wide, staring for half a second at Aaron's chest before darting to look over his shoulder. Aaron was both irritated and charmed. He turned Neil's head.

“I want you to look,” he said. “I wouldn't have taken it off if I didn't.” Aaron leaned in, brushed their lips together once, twice, softly. Neil melted into the kiss, his hands coming up to rest on Aaron's sides, over his ribs.

Aaron lost himself in the gentle rhythm of their kisses, relaxing into Neil's lap. He could feel Neil's cock under his leg, hot and hard, but he wasn't afraid. His cunt clenched at the thought of it inside him.

He reached down, under the blankets, and cupped Neil's cock. It was thick, almost too thick for Aaron to close his hand around, and long. He wondered, briefly, if he would even be able to take it. Aaron hadn't done this before, had never found anyone he wanted, but he somehow knew Neil would take care of him.

Aaron rocked his hips, pushing down against Neil just to hear the hitch in his breathing. Neil's cock twitched in his hand and Aaron felt himself getting wet. He took his hand away and moved so that Neil's cock was pressed against his cunt through his clothes.

This time, when he moved, Aaron felt the blunt head of Neil's cock rub against his clit and he bit back a moan. Neil's hands clenched on his hips, their grip near bruising. He pulled just the tiniest bit, encouraging Aaron.

Aaron didn’t need his encouragement. He ground down on Neil, rubbing his clit on Neil's cock until he was dripping. Aaron groaned and pulled away, fumbling with his pants. His clit was swollen, peeking out of his folds, and he was so wet that he could feel it on his thighs.

Neil struggled out of his nest of blankets, baring himself to Aaron's gaze. He was beautiful, pale and muscular. Aaron wanted to bite across his chest, to leave kisses down his abs, to lick his hip bones. He was so enraptured that he didn't even notice Neil reaching out until his hand was between Aaron's legs.

Aaron jumped, startled by the feeling of calloused fingers against soft skin and downy hair. He clamped his legs shut tight on reflex but gentle strokes of Neil's fingers coaxed them open again. He trembled, shifting closer so Neil didn't have to strain.

“Beautiful,” Neil whispered, tracing a finger along Aaron's slit. He wasn't trying to push in or touch Aaron's clit, just… touching. “You're so beautiful, złotko.”

Aaron tried to stay still, to let Neil do as he pleased, but need outlived patience and he moved his hips the tiniest bit. He hissed as Neil's fingers skated over his cunt, pressing in just the slightest bit.

Neil raised an eyebrow, keeping his hand still. He kept his eyes on Aaron's face as he eased one finger in, rubbing it over the walls of Aaron's cunt. Aaron whimpered, biting his lip. This was nothing. Just a finger. Why was he so undone by it all?

Neil crooked his finger up, rubbing in tight circles, and Aaron's knees nearly buckled. He had touched himself before, of course he had, but with someone else's hands the feeling was magnified ten times over.

Aaron spread his legs wider and said, “Another.”

Neil grinned up at him wolfishly and did as Aaron said. Two fingers was better than one, pushing deeper into him. Aaron rolled his hips, fucking himself on Neil's fingers. He was so wet he could hear Neil's fingers moving inside him, something that would have embarrassed him if he'd been able to think.

Three fingers was a stretch, a slight sting, but Aaron wanted all of this. Pain and pleasure both. Neil would crook them up, rub against that sweet spot, when he felt like Aaron was feeling too much. Aaron moaned out loud at the thought of Neil's cock hitting it.

“I'm ready,” he whispered, pushing Neil to lie back. Aaron pulled Neil's fingers from between his legs and straddled his thighs, stroking over his cock. Neil was leaking, pearls of clear fluid dripping down. Aaron stroked him once, twice, then rubbed the head against his cunt.

Sitting on Neil's cock wasn't the smooth move Aaron had wanted it to be. He was a virgin and tight, despite Neil's sweet touches, and every inch felt like a fight. There was some discomfort, of course there was, but Aaron wanted this. Wanted him.

Neil was panting, hands fisted in the blankets and trying so hard to stay still. Aaron's heart melted as he fumbled between them to rub his own clit. The sparks of pleasure relaxed him enough for Aaron to sink down fully, all of Neil's cock sheathed inside him.

Aaron keened, keeping his hands pressed to Neil's chest to hide their shaking. He had wanted him — this, so much, and now he had Neil and it was everything he ever imagined it would be. He gasped as he felt Neil twitch inside him, he could feel everything.

“Fuck,” Neil whispered, head thrown back. He squeezed his hands into fists, pressing them into the blankets at his side. He wasn't touching Aaron anywhere but his dick inside him and where their thighs were pressed together and it was starting to hurt Aaron's feelings.

Aaron reached for Neil's hands, uncurled his fingers and lead them to his chest. He flattened Neil's hands over his breasts and rocked his hips, whimpering at the subtle drag of Neil's cock inside him. Neil's eyes, already so bright, lit up as a small smile played on his lips.

Złotko, you are a wonder,” he whispered. He squeezed the flesh in his palms reverently. “A beautiful wonder.”

Aaron blushed, biting his lip. He lifted his hips and rolled them down, fucking himself onto Neil's cock. He'd never felt anything like this, his own fingers a pale substitute. Neil was urging him on, whispering quiet praise and playing with Aaron's nipples, teasing them into stiff peaks.

“Wh-what does that even mean?” Aaron gasped, clenching around Neil on a particularly sweet drop. His thighs were trembling with effort but he couldn't let Neil see him tiring. The idiot would try to flip their positions again and hurt himself.

“Gold,” Neil groaned. He lifted his hand to brush a strand of Aaron's hair off his forehead. “You're golden.”

Aaron gasped softly, the sound nearly lost in the gentle rocking of their bodies together. There was a small flame, curling deeper and deeper inside his belly. Every rock of their hips fanned it higher.

“Neil,” he whispered, at a loss for words. He clung to Neil's shoulders, moving faster over him. “Neil, Neil, Neil…”

It was all he could say, everything but the two of them pushed out of his mind. Nothing mattered but Neil's hands on him, Neil's cock inside him, Neil's sweet voice in his ear.

Aaron came with a shuddering cry, legs clamped around Neil's hips. He rocked forward and fell into Neil's chest, shivering as his orgasm washed over him. Neil's arms came up around him and Aaron felt, stupidly, like crying.

Złotko,” Neil whispered, the endearment like a prayer. “Beautiful, you did so good.”

Aaron's cunt spasmed again, reminding him that Neil was still very hard inside him. He tried to sit up but his shaking limbs wouldn't support him. Neil shushed him.

“I'm alright,” he said softly, easing their bodies apart. The loss of his cock left Aaron sighing. “This was for you. Not me.”

Aaron kissed Neil's neck, suddenly shy. He couldn't look at him yet, not sure exactly what this made them. Lovers seemed a stretch for right now… but perhaps friends?

Neil's fingers were gentle, working the knots from Aaron's hair. He seemed content to lie together, to share warmth and to hold Aaron. Aaron could feel his limbs going loose as sleep crept up on him.

"Rest, złotko," Neil murmured, pressing a kiss to Aaron's forehead. He sounded half a step from sleep himself, drowsy and soft. Aaron buried his face in Neil's chest, closed his eyes, and knew no more.

🌿🌿🌿

Something was wrong. Aaron knew it as soon as he opened his eyes.

The blankets had been thrown aside, puddled in a heap beside them. Aaron shivered in the cool air as he sat up, watching the rain fall down in sheets outside.

He had moved away from Neil in his sleep, stretching out beside him instead of on top of him. Aaron reached out, meaning to check Neil's bandages, but stopped an inch from his skin.

Heat was radiating from Neil's body, sweat beading on his brow. Aaron cursed, scrambling closer. He touched Neil's face and recoiled.

He was burning with fever. Aaron could have helped him easily if he'd had his med kit. And there was no way he could go out and forage in the rain without risking getting sick himself.

"You fool!" Aaron snapped, pulling on his pants. "Why couldn't you keep medicine here? Do you think you're immortal?"

Neil, of course, said nothing, shifting on the pallet. Aaron tucked the blankets back around him, ignoring the unhappy groan Neil let out. He had to sweat the fever out of Neil and fast.

Aaron pulled a shirt and pants from the pile of drying clothes, a whiff of cedar and sweet grass told him the shirt at least was Neil's, and put them on. He gave Neil one last careful look over and ran out into the muddy woods.

Aaron whispered fervent prayers to long ignored gods, asking for herbs, for something— anything he could use to help.

Anything, please, he thought. Gentle Lady, just send me something to help him.

Aaron was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he didn't notice the girl until he ran into her. He fell backwards with a yelp while she stood firm above him.

Her leather armour, light and flexible, hugged a figure meant for art. She had golden hair tied up in a knot on her head and her eyes were a piercing green. She leveled a wicked knife at Aaron's throat and said, "Who are you, wandering so close to our home?"

Aaron blinked up at her stupidly, confused. Home? There was no village here, no homesteads or farms. His eyes caught on the green fabric of her cloak, familiar as he had slept under it the night before.

"Are you from the village?" Aaron demanded. "The Village Without A Name? I have a— a friend from your village. He's hurt!"

The girl raised an eyebrow. "One of ours? How did one of us end up so close to home with an outsider?"

"We were running from the floods," Aaron answered impatiently. "Look, will you help him or not?"

She tilted her head, maddeningly calm and as still as Neil. Aaron wondered if they all learned it as children. "Your friend, what's his name?"

"Neil," Aaron said, thinking how odd it was to see so many of Neil's mannerisms in a stranger. "Neil Josten."

The girl's face went pale, the knife falling to the forest floor with a clatter. She put her fingers to her mouth and let out three whistles, piercing and sharp. She picked up her blade and pulled Aaron roughly to his feet.

"Take me to him. The others will follow." She hardly waited for Aaron to get his feet under him, taking off in the direction he came. Aaron pulled ahead finally, stopping her with a hand on her arm.

"You'll miss the cave!" he snapped, pulling her roughly towards the hidden alcove. She pushed past him, running into the damp cave. She gave a cry and Aaron's blood ran cold.

Merciful Lady, don't let him be dead…

Neil was not dead. For all that he looked like it. The girl had sunk to her knees, holding one of Neil's limp hands to her cheek. Her eyes were closed and her lips moved as if in silent prayer. She was… grieving.

Aaron wondered, with a stab of unwanted jealousy, who exactly this girl was. He stepped further into the cave and sank down on Neil's other side. Neil's limbs were cold even as his fever raged and Aaron's heart throbbed.

"Allison?" Another figure, lithe and so soft footed that Aaron hadn't even heard them approach, appeared at the cave mouth. Their hair was a shock of white, colored vividly in every shade nature could provide. Aaron had never seen anything like it, except on the rare occasions that spirit workers passed through the village.

This person, whoever they were, was God touched.

"Renee," the blonde —Allison— rasped. She looked from Renee to Neil in clear helplessness. "Help him! Please!"

Renee held out a hand to Allison, placating her as one would a frightened animal. They sank to their knees with an eerie grace and laid their hand on Neil's chest. Their eyes closed and— for a moment— nothing happened.

Slowly, so slowly he might have thought it a trick of his own mind, Aaron saw tendrils of light creep through Neil's veins. He gasped, clinging tighter to Neil's cold hands. This was magic.

Three more figures darkened the cave mouth, slipping inside almost as silently as Renee had. There were two slim, fine boned people —clearly related— as well as a third man with nut brown skin and intricate braids in his hair.

They were all dressed in the same leathers and green cloaks as Allison and Neil, the same sun-chapped skin and ornaments in their hair. They looked nothing and yet everything alike.

"You're his family," Aaron said, the words slipping free before he could stop them. Five heads whipped to stare at him with the same cold expression.

"And you are?" The smallest figure, a boy Aaron thought, crossed his arms over his chest and glared Aaron down through his curtain of black hair.

"I— I am…" But Aaron had no real answer. He had been Neil's responsibility and then his burden. One time his lover. And now… Now he was the man who had failed to keep him safe. "I'm just me. I'm Aaron."

"Wiser words than they seem," Renee said softly. The glow in Neil's veins had faded and they opened their eyes. "His ribs are broken and they've poked into his lung. I've sealed the bleeding for now but we must bring him back to the village. Quickly."

Allison stood, facing the others. "Riko, run back and tell the Elders we're coming. Abby especially. Ichirou, Seth, help us carry him." The smallest figure ran out of the cave while the other two crouched down beside Renee and Aaron.

"He will be alright," the lovely one —Ichirou, Aaron thought— said gently. He touched Aaron's shoulder briefly before cradling one of Neil's legs. "Renee and Abby are our best Menders."

"That's if he makes it back," the other man —Seth— snapped. His brown eyes were filled with tears and Aaron could see the marks of their passage on his cheeks. He was glaring at Aaron with a ferocity that bordered on wildness.

"Seth!" Allison barked, holding Neil's shoulders. "Stop that right now. He will be fine." She seemed to soften at the sight of his tears. "Calm yourself, cielito."

Seth swallowed hard and shook himself, holding her gaze. He gripped Neil's legs and without a word they all stood in perfect unison, supporting Neil's limp body between them. Aaron scrambled to gather the few things he and Neil had and rush after them.

They walked for what felt like days but couldn't have been more than an hour. Aaron's feet were screaming in his still damp boots, wet, now less with water than with blood. It took everything he had to keep up with the punishing pace Allison kept them at.

Suddenly, between one heaving breath and the next, they were there. Aaron drew up short at the sight of it all. There were houses dotted here and there with gardens and larger farm plots, as well as stables for livestock. But what was unusual were the walkways spiraling around the trunks of enormous trees and strung between their boughs.

Aaron was so busy gawking that he missed them taking Neil away. He would have been completely lost if Riko hadn't appeared silently at his elbow to guide him through the maze. He lead Aaron up a walkway and across two narrow bridges of ropes and timber and into a small hut cradled in the branches of a willow tree.

Neil was laid out in the center of the room, Renee and another person working over him feverishly. Riko held Aaron back from going any closer, even as his heart screamed for it.

"Will he be alright?" The question fell from Aaron's lips without his permission. The other person —a woman— looked up at him with compassionate eyes.

"I don't know," she said, voice gruff. Her every word sounded as if she were choking on glass and Aaron wondered if the ragged scar wrapping around her throat was why.

"Please," Aaron begged helplessly. "Please."

The woman shot a glance behind Aaron and shook her head gently. "Take him out. We will do what we can."

Strong arms wrapped around Aaron's shoulders and guided him from the hut. Aaron was too busy blinking back sudden tears to see who they belonged to. He didn't care. He had let this happen, he had failed Neil.

"I can hear your self loathing from over here, stop it," Riko griped. Well. That answered that question.

He steered Aaron to a fallen log that had been hollowed out into a bench. They sat in silence while Aaron sniffled and Riko pretended he wasn't. The sun crawled slowly by overhead and was nearly below the horizon when Allison came to them.

She was pale, her skin flecked with blood that hadn't been there before. She sat next to Riko on the arm of the bench and leaned her head on his.

"How is he?" Riko sounded gutted, vulnerable in a way Aaron had yet to see him.

"He'll live," Allison said faintly. Her voice was proud if not a little strained. "He's going to be just fine."

Aaron didn't stay to listen to anything more. He took off for the healer's hut and barrelled through the door. Aaron glared at Seth when the larger man took a step towards him and settled on the edge of Neil's cot.

"Here." Renee passed him a bowl of water and a cloth. Their smile was knowing and small. "To clean him and ease the fever."

Aaron took it, balancing the bowl on his knees. He soaked and wrung out the cloth, wiping away sweat and dried blood from Neil's pallid face and neck. Aaron kept his touch light, tracing the lines of Neil's body with all the tenderness and care he was capable of.

He ignored the murmur of voices around him. He only had eyes for Neil. Aaron was going to stay with him, night and day, until Neil woke up.

However long that took.

🌿🌿🌿

Two weeks. Two long weeks of bathing and feeding and changing Neil's clothing, bedding and bandages. Two weeks of nothing but staring at Neil's still face and telling him about the breaks Neil's siblings forced him to take.

Aaron was exhausted. He could see it in the way his hands shook as he tried to knot Neil's bandages. In how time seemed to drift by slow as molasses only for morning to come between one blink and the next.

Abigail, the healer, had started putting her foot down on Aaron sleeping sitting up. She'd had Riko drag a cot into Neil's room for Aaron and her passive aggressive silences when she woke to find he hadn't used it had convinced Aaron to at least pretend to lay down on it occasionally.

Neil's siblings came every day, all of them, popping in and out at various meal and break times. Seth usually followed by a pack of children with at least two babies strapped to his chest.

"Why the children?" Aaron had finally asked one night. Seth had just left with his sleepy charges and Aaron was finally curious enough to bother asking.

Ichirou looked up from the tapestry he was weaving. "Seth is a Nurturer. He raises the village children along with a few others." Ichirou shrugged. "It's his job. Why?"

"Their parents don't raise them?"

"Some do. Others find that their children benefit from being raised communally with others their own age." Ichirou smiled, a fond tilt of his lips. "Our family is one such example."

Aaron shrugged and turned back to watching the rise and fall of Neil's chest. The flicker of curiosity had been a distraction he could not afford. What if Neil had stopped breathing while Aaron wasn't watching?

"You love him, don't you?" The question was soft, unsure.

Aaron scoffed. "You have to know someone to love them."

"No, you don't." Ichirou stood suddenly, cracking his back. He looked down at Aaron clutching Neil's wrist and raised an eyebrow. Aaron resisted the urge to snatch his hand away. "Love is not something you find already grown to flourishing, little brother. It is a seed that you nurture into a garden."

Aaron waited for Ichirou to go on but he never did. He swept a kiss over Neil's forehead and gave Aaron's shoulder a squeeze before disappearing into the night.

Love, Aaron thought bitterly. What is there in me to love? He gripped Neil's wrist tighter and fought down the burn in his eyes. You don't fail the people you love.

"Złotko?" The word was barely a whisper, the voice so hoarse it seemed like a stiff breeze would blow it away. But Aaron would have known it anywhere.

"Neil," Aaron said, a little helplessly. He wanted to scream at Neil, to shout at him for being so careless with his own health even if Aaron knew he shared a bit of the blame. He couldn't make himself louder than an awed murmur. "Neil!"

He should have yelled for Abby or Neil's siblings or someone, but Aaron couldn't make himself. He wanted so badly just to keep Neil to himself just a few moments longer. He clung to Neil's hand, bringing it to his lips on impulse.

Neil smiled softly, running his thumb across Aaron's lips. Their eyes held until Aaron's started to burn and Neil's smile fell. "You're crying. Why?"

"Because you almost died, you fool! If your family hadn't found us, you'd be dead and I would be—" Aaron cut himself off before he could finish. Heartbroken, that had been what he was going to say. He would have been heartbroken.

Because he loved Neil. He loved him. Aaron clutched at Neil's hand with desperate fingers, holding that soft touch to his face. He turned, pressed a kiss to Neil's palm. "I— I thought I lost you."

Neil's eyes were tender. "Never, złotko."

Neil levered himself into a sitting position despite Aaron's half hearted attempts to make him lie back down. He reached out, caught Aaron's arms and pulled until Aaron had to either sit on him or fall face first into his crotch.

Neil arranged them until he could cradle Aaron to his chest, tucking his head under Neil's chin. He ran gentle fingers up and down Aaron's spine, frowning at the obvious notches he felt.

"Have you been eating?"

Aaron bit his lip. "Yes."

"You're lying." Neil's lips brushed his cheek. "Złotko..."

"I needed to take care of you. To be here." Aaron refused to feel guilty for it either.

Neil sighed as if Aaron were being the unreasonable one. "You need to take care of yourself too."

Aaron brushed him aside, feeling along Neil's sides. "Is there any pain, any difficulty breathing?"

Neil caught his hands and raised them to his lips. "Złotko, I'm fine. I swear it." He brushed his lips along Aaron's wrist, feeling his pulse hammering.

Aaron bit his lip, trying to hold in his shivers. "Neil…"

"Shh," Neil said softly, holding Aaron's hand to his cheek. "I just want to feel you."

How could Aaron say no to that? He leaned in, lips pressed to Neil's while Neil's hands roamed his body. This, Aaron thought as Neil bore him back onto the bed, this was bliss.

Aaron let his hands rest in Neil's tangled curls as Neil kissed and bit his way down Aaron's body. He pushed the loose pants Aaron wore to his ankles then off the bed, easing down to lie between Aaron's thighs.

Neil's eyes flicked up to Aaron's and Aaron nodded once, letting his head fall back on the bed. The first touch of Neil's tongue made him jump but the warm touch of Neil's hands on his thighs soothed him.

Neil hummed, flicking his tongue over Aaron's clit. His mouth was hot and Aaron had to struggle not to move or clamp his legs around Neil's head. He closed his eyes but that just made the sensation more overwhelming.

"I—I—" Aaron swallowed hard and found his fingers nearly yanking Neil's hair out. He wanted to release his grip but they wouldn't obey him. He was trying to apologize when Neil's tongue darted down further and inside him.

Blessed Lady and all Her saints...

Aaron choked down a whine and shoved Neil's face closer to him, wanting more. Neil chuckled, the vibrations nearly making Aaron shake out of his skin.

"Shh, złotko, I'm going to take care of you," he whispered into the thin skin of Aaron's hip. He eased a finger in alongside his tongue, turning his head to watch Aaron's face.

Aaron bit his lip and turned his head, cheeks flaming. Neil could already feel how wet he was, did he really need to see Aaron's face turn red too?

Suddenly, Neil was there, blue eyes big and beautiful and right next to Aaron's. He kissed him, slow and sweet while his cock nudged against Aaron's cunt. Aaron let his arms fall around Neil's shoulders, let Neil's mouth swallow his cry as Neil eased inside him.

They moved together, hips rocking, tender somehow. Aaron pulled back from their kiss to see Neil watching him, watching how every thrust and roll of his hips made Aaron's face change.

It was perfect. It was horrible. Horrible because Aaron knew he couldn't come back from this. Even if Neil tired of him, tired of their barbs and dalliance, Aaron would never find another.

"I love you," Neil breathed into the scant space between them. His breathing hitched and Aaron could feel the tension in his body even as he kept moving inside him. "Aaron, I—"

"I love you," Aaron said, pulling Neil down to kiss him. Over and over, on his lips, his cheeks, his eyes. Wherever he could reach. "I love you too."

Neil's eyes lit like lamps and Aaron knew then that Neil felt it too. They were bound together, through everything they'd endured and would endure later. They would do it together.

🌿🌿🌿

One year later…

 

"Do you think they'll recognize us?" Aaron asked anxiously, staring out over the fields that lead home. He adjusted the baby strapped to his chest and looked over at Neil.

Neil had their daughter on his back, her tiny body nestled into the dip of his shoulder blades. He came closer, kissed Aaron's hair and then their son's.

"Andrew would know you anywhere," he said, quiet voice a balm to Aaron's frazzled nerves. Neil squeezed his hand and started pulling Aaron gently but firmly towards Nicky and Erik's farm.

Aaron let himself be pulled along, glad of the excuse not to have to think about more than where he put his feet. His son grumbled and nosed his collar, probably hungry and cranky from the long walk. Aaron would settle him when they got home.

Home. Aaron hadn't thought of any place besides the treetops as home in so long. But this farm, this small cottage with its crooked chimney and warm hearth, it would always be his home.

Deep down, Aaron knew his family would be overjoyed to see him and Neil. Even more overjoyed by their children. But he feared what had happened to Andrew in his absence.

They had always been close, as twins were wont to be. Never apart more than a few hours at most and then Aaron had gone and gotten himself lost in the forest, taken to a hidden village and pregnant, separating them for a year.

A whole year.

Aaron had missed an entire year of Andrew's life. And Andrew of his.

"My love, if you think any louder, they'll hear us coming from the end of the road." Neil bumped their shoulders together gently, careful not to disturb their twins. "It's going to be fine."

As they drew closer, a shape formed. It was Erik, bringing in the goats. He stopped to peer at them, probably confused at the late guests. Aaron's stomach was in knots.

Erik suddenly dropped his shepherd's hook and started running. Aaron barely had time to worry that he'd squash the baby before Erik was holding him.

"Aaron!" Erik was a big man, tall and broad, but he shook like a child in Aaron's arms. His voice brought a steadiness Aaron didn't know he was missing. "Oh, my child."

Aaron felt tears welling up as he tried to speak. He couldn't say more than Erik's name but it was enough. This was a man who had raised him after all. The man who had helped his cousin Nicky as they spirited him and Andrew away from their horrible birth mother. How could he think to forget such a man?

Erik pulled back enough to look at the baby strapped to Aaron and smiled through his tears. "Have you brought us a grandchild?" He glanced at Neil, eyes twinkling. "And a son in law?"

Aaron swatted his arm. "We aren't married!"

"Yet," Neil said smugly.

If anything this seemed to only encourage Erik. He and Neil bartered back and forth for Aaron's dowry the rest of the way to the cottage. It nearly distracted Aaron from his anxiety until he heard Nicky's warbling voice singing from the kitchen window.

It was an old tune, something sweet and lovelorn that he used to use to sing the twins to sleep so long ago. It was familiar and comforting and so full of love that Aaron nearly burst into tears again.

Erik pushed past them and into the house. Aaron didn't hear what he said but there was a sound of breaking crockery and running feet.

Nicky caught him first, pulling Aaron into his arms and sobbing. Aaron held him just as tightly, clinging to the cousin who'd raised him.

"My baby," Nicky whispered, pressing kisses into Aaron's hair. "My sweet baby, you're home." He sniffled and rocked them gently in place, only pulling back when Aaron's son whined in protest.

Aaron shushed him, bouncing his little body. He felt Nicky's hands cover his, felt his cousin take a shaky breath at the realization that this was a baby in his arms.

Nicky smiled, bittersweet. "Not my baby any longer then."

"Always your baby," Aaron replied, squeezing Nicky's arm.

He glanced past Nicky to see Andrew frozen in the doorway. Aaron took a small step closer and Andrew took one back. His eyes were wide and glossy.

"Andr—"

"You're not real," Andrew said harshly. He swallowed hard and took another step back into the house. "You're not. You're dead."

Aaron was hurt. "Andrew, I'm alive and well. I'm right here!"

Andrew just shook his head. "They said you were dead. We mourned you." He hurled the last words like an accusation.

Aaron flinched. "I wanted to— to write but—"

"But what?" Andrew was sneering. To anyone else he would have looked vicious but to his twin he only looked agonized. "What could have kept you from us, from me?"

Aaron sighed and gestured to the children he and Neil carried. "They did." He stepped closer again, warmed when this time Andrew stayed put. "My children. I couldn't travel while I carried them. The forest is too dangerous."

Andrew's eyes cut to Neil, sharp. "Are they his?"

"Of course they are!" Aaron snapped, stung. He rubbed a hand over his son's back. The baby was fussing fully now, crying his thin wail of distress.

Andrew, at least, had the decency to look ashamed. He closed the distance between them and pulled back the wrappings to look at his nephew. His face crumpled and Aaron wrapped an arm around him just as Andrew started to cry.

"Where did you go?" Andrew whispered into his cheek. "What happened?"

"That's a long story," Neil said softly. His sling was empty, their daughter being cradled between Nicky and Erik. He slipped his hand into Aaron's and squeezed. "But we're willing to tell it. If you'll listen."

Andrew lead them inside and around the worn table. Aaron found himself rubbing the familiar grooves in the wood, old knicks and whorls from years past. He could hear Nicky cooing to his daughter and sending Erik to fetch Kevin.

Soon they'd be all together. Soon they would be whole.

Aaron felt a gentle touch on his back and let Neil guide him back to rest against his chest.

This was home. And Aaron was never leaving again.